How Decriminalization Impacts Racial Disparities in Cannabis Arrests

    Cannabis decriminalization has modestly reduced the disproportionate possession arrests of Black adults compared to white, according to new research. But while decriminalization has brought down possession arrests overall, it does not seem to have improved the racial disparity for Black youth—only Black people over 18.

    A recent study published in Social Science and Medicine stated that little empirical evidence had previously been reviewed on decriminalization’s effect on arrest rates between Black and white US residents. In all 50 states—whether cannabis is currently legalized for adult use or not—Black residents are more likely than white residents to be arrested for possession. Both demographics use cannabis at a similar rate.

    The study used law enforcement data from between 2000 and 2019, focusing on the 11 states that passed decriminalization laws during that period. Racial demographics other than Black and white were not included due to inadequately reported police data. (Medical legalization alone was not associated with significant changes.)

    In no state did the arrest rates between Black and white residents become proportionately equal.

    Those 11 states reported a 70-percent reduction in overall adult arrest rates following decriminalization, and a 40-percent reduction among overall youth arrest rates. But while the racial disparity between Black and white adults decreased by 17 percent, the rate did not change for those under 18.

    The researchers noted one possible explanation for why disparities among children appeared unchanged: The pre-decriminalization disparity was much larger among adults, “providing a greater room for reduction.” In all states analyzed, prior to decriminalization Black adults were on average four times likelier than white adults to be arrested for cannabis, and Black children 1.8 times more likely than white children.

    In no state did the arrest rates between Black and white residents become proportionately equal. Black people continue to be heavily targeted by police for possession arrests, even in the states with the most liberal laws. In Los Angeles, for example, police have been arresting more Black residents than before decriminalization. Decriminalization is progress, but on its own doesn’t go far enough.



    Photograph by Elsa Olofsson via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0

    • Alexander is Filter’s staff writer. He writes about the movement to end the War on Drugs. He grew up in New Jersey and swears it’s actually alright. He’s also a musician hoping to change the world through the power of ledger lines and legislation. Alexander was previously Filter‘s editorial fellow.

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