Why Are Black Arrest Rates for Marijuana Rising in Los Angeles?

July 16, 2020

Although California legalized marijuana over two years ago, racial disparities in arrests for the drug are worsening in its largest city. Each year since legalization took effect in January 2018, Los Angeles police have arrested more Black residents for marijuana-law violations. Black people have each year become a larger proportion of total marijuana arrests in the city.

A recent report in Crosstown looked at arrest data from the LAPD. It found that in 2017, before legalization took effect, LA police made 588 arrests total marijuana arrests; there were 620 arrests in 2018 and 617 arrests in 2019. Black people made up 29 percent of those arrests in 2017; 39 percent in 2018; and 42 percent in 2019.

Arrests of Hispanic residents dropped sharply the year after legalization, but rose again in 2019, up to 37 percent of all marijuana arrests—nearly right where they were pre-legalization. Arrests of multi-racial (“other”) individuals have also risen slightly since legalization. White people are the only racial group that has had marijuana arrests decrease every year since 2017 in the city. They went from 23 percent of arrests in 2017 to 12 percent in 2019.

The bulk of arrests were related to charges for selling or “transporting” marijuana with intent to sell. A public defender’s office representative reached by Crosstown pointed out the problem with many of these charges: Police often don’t actually witness someone selling weed. Instead, they are making assumptions based on items they turn up during a search such as plastic baggies or scales, or even just possession of a relatively large quantity.

The report also highlighted some of the city’s other racial disparities in marijuana. Wealthier and whiter neighborhoods in the city’s northern and western sides have dozens of licensed marijuana dispensaries, while the heavily Black and Latinx southern side of the city has fewer than 10 stores. Those communities therefore have fewer legal ways to obtain cannabis.

Filter has previously reported on the highly segregated legal cannabis industry in the city, dominated by white business owners, and on local politicians’ failure to make it easier for Black and Latinx cannabis businesses to operate.

The new findings resonate with an ACLU report released this year on 4/20, which looked at marijuana arrests in all 50 US states between 2000-2018. According to these findings, Black arrest rates for marijuana for the whole state of California narrowed slightly after legalization. But Black people are still currently 1.8 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana.

Racial disparities vary widely on the county level. The worst are in mostly-rural Siskiyou County in the north of the state, bordering Oregon. Black people there are more than eight times likelier than whites to be arrested for cannabis.

Meanwhile in Los Angeles, local organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) have made pleas to the mayor’s office and police department to explain why Black arrest rates are trending up. At the same time, the People’s Budget Los Angeles—a coalition led by Black Lives Matter LA—is calling for a dramatic cut in the city’s law enforcement budget, and the reallocation of funds toward housing, healthcare and youth development.


Photo of downtown Los Angeles by traveljunction via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0.

Alexander Lekhtman

Alexander is an editorial fellow at Filter.

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