Black people are 9 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in these states, ACLU says

Abby Haglage
·6 min read
A new report from the ACLU found that — despite increasing legalization — black people are nearly four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana than whites. (Photo: Getty)
A new report from the ACLU found that — despite increasing legalization — black people are nearly four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana than whites. (Getty Images)

The American Civil Liberties Union released a groundbreaking report in 2013 showing that black people were 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites. Seven years and 33 medical marijuana laws later, a follow-up from the organization shows racial disparities in marijuana arrests remain mostly unchanged — and in some states, have gotten worse.

Titled “A Tale of Two Countries: Racially Targeted Arrests in the Era of Marijuana Reform,” the report analyzed marijuana possession arrests from 2010 to 2018 using the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program. Similar to the ACLU’s earlier report, this one concluded that black people are more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession, despite similar rates of usage, in every single state.

In some states, such as Montana and Kentucky, black people were shown to be more than nine times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession. “Racial disparities in marijuana possession arrests exist across the country, in every state, in counties large and small, urban and rural, wealthy and poor, and with large and small black populations,” the ACLU writes in the report.

To see the racial disparities in arrests in your state, visit the ACLU’s data visualizer. Here are three takeaways from the report.

Legalization lowers arrests, but ‘extreme racial disparities’ remain

With marijuana now legal recreationally in 11 states and medically in 33, arrest rates for marijuana possession have decreased 15 percent nationwide. But the drop seems to have disproportionally benefited one demographic. Black people are still more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession nationwide and — as the report notes — “in some states, black people were up to six, eight or almost 10 times more likely to be arrested.”

Some states with legalization laws, such as California and Nevada, saw a decrease in the racial disparity of marijuana arrests, but not all states did. In Maine and Massachusetts — where marijuana is legalized both medically and recreationally — racial disparities actually increased from 2018 than in 2010.

Ezekiel Edwards, director of the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project and lead author of the report, says this is reflective of systemic problems with legalization. “The persistence or in some cases increase in racial disparities is evidence of how the marijuana reform movement has for too long been untethered from racial equity,” says Edwards. “And also [untethered] from wide-scale police reform with regards to law enforcement deployment and actions in communities of color.”

According to a report from the ACLU, racial disparities in marijuana arrests have remained mostly unchanged since 2010 and in some states, have gotten much worse. (Image courtesy of the ACLU)
According to a report from the ACLU, racial disparities in marijuana arrests have remained mostly unchanged since 2010 and in some states, have gotten much worse. (Image courtesy of the ACLU)

Racial profiling seems to be driving the disparity

Like the 2013 report, this one explored how procedures like stop-and-frisk — in which police search individuals whom they deem suspicious — serve as a vehicle for maintaining racial disparities. Multiple investigations nationwide have exposed how these policies hinge on racial profiling. One analysis of New York City found that 90 percent of stop-and-frisks in 2016 involved people of color; another in Newark, N.J., found that 73 percent of these arrests were people of color.

“Whereas marijuana use by white people has been de facto legal in much of the country, in black and brown communities, police have routinely stopped people, particularly youth — at the park, on the street, in the train, on the bus, at school, near school, by the community center, on the porch, or while driving — searching (usually in vain) for something illegal, and, if they found marijuana, arresting and hauling people to jail,” the report reads. “Such police harassment not only criminalizes people of color for engaging in an activity that white people participate in with relative impunity, it is a means of surveillance and social control counterproductive to public safety and community health.”

Marijuana possession arrests can create lifelong obstacles

Getting arrested for marijuana isn’t simply a mark on someone’s record, it causes what the ACLU deems “collateral consequences.” Among them: loss of driver’s licenses, block on federal financial aid, denial of public benefits, separation of families in the child welfare system, loss of immigration status and bans on participation in the marijuana industry — which is expected to reach $73 billion by 2027.

Edwards says this not only creates “deep and lasting harm to individuals,” but highlights the need for legalization efforts to be more inclusive. “Legalization must be grounded in racial equity and repair,” says Edwards. “If states legalize without redressing the past harms of prohibition, or don’t address the present injuries that arrest and conviction records cause, or without ensuring that communities whose economic health has been compromised by prohibition do not benefit from the business and fiscal benefits, this country will have missed a critical opportunity to right wrongs, level playing fields, and avoid perpetuating other forms of inequality going forward.”

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