Marijuana Arrests Decrease For White Teens, Skyrockets For Black, Latino Teens

By Victoria Kim 05/18/16

Though marijuana arrests have decreased overall in Colorado after legalization, minority teens are still experiencing racial bias put in place by the drug war.

Marijuana Arrests Decrease For White Teens, Skyrockets For Black, Latino Teens

Most will agree by now that criminalizing marijuana does more harm than good. And in Colorado, one of the first U.S. states to legalize it for recreational use, the benefits are coming to light. Even Colorado's governor, who once called legalization "reckless," changed his tune. The state's billion-dollar marijuana industry has become a lucrative source of tax revenue, and pot arrests among adults are down overall. 

But one thing hasn't gotten better since Colorado legalized it. Though adult marijuana arrests have gone down overall, the racial disparity of these arrests is growing ever larger. And what's more, juvenile arrests—which were found to also rely heavily on racial bias—have increased throughout the state as well.

This is according to a March report by the Colorado Department of Public Safety, that found that by 2014, two years after Colorado legalized marijuana, black and Latino people were being arrested at an even higher rate than before legalization. In 2012, African Americans were arrested for pot-related offenses at a little less than double the rate of whites. But by 2014, they were being arrested at almost triple the rate.

Though the question is what's causing racial disparity to increase, this kind of racial bias has been a cornerstone of the drug war. Though historically, African Americans and whites have engaged in drug offenses at roughly comparable rates, African Americans are much more likely to be arrested, said Maria McFarland Sanchez-Moreno, co-director of the U.S. Program at Human Rights Watch. "Largely, these disparities reflect the fact that law enforcement disproportionately focuses its resources on African American communities," Sanchez-Moreno told The Fix via email. 

The public safety report also found that more adolescents are being arrested for marijuana than before. Juvenile marijuana arrests at Colorado elementary and high schools rose by 34% between 2012 and 2014. And again, they rely heavily on race.

In analyzing pot arrests among minors aged 10-17, who are not legally allowed to purchase marijuana because they are under 21, the report found that between 2012 and 2014, black juvenile pot arrests increased by 58% and Latino juvenile pot arrests increased by 29%—while white juvenile pot arrests declined by 8% in that period. The rates at which schools have been suspending students for marijuana differed greatly by race, as well. According to the report, schools with the "highest proportion of minorities have a drug suspension rate 110% higher than schools with the lower proportion of minorities," and vice versa. 

"It's very troubling that juveniles are being arrested for marijuana offenses," said Sanchez-Moreno. "States have a duty under international human rights standards to protect kids from the harmful effects of drugs, but under no circumstances should children face criminal sanctions for drug possession or use."

She added: "The fact that—according to this report—these sanctions seem to be applied in a racially disparate (and arbitrary, depending on the county) manner, is even more problematic."

There’s time for the trend to reverse—2014 was the only the first full year that the recreational marijuana market was operational in Colorado. But the fact remains that marijuana legalization hasn't done much to at least reduce racially disparate marijuana arrests in Colorado and other states where weed has been legalized, like Washington.

Sanchez-Moreno said legalizing marijuana was a positive step forward for Colorado, but it's not a quick fix for the policies ingrained by the decades-long drug war. "Many of the problems in how law enforcement deals with drug issues—including the disproportionate focus on African American communities—are deeply rooted and require attention, even as drug reform moves forward," she told The Fix.

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr