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Racial Disparities Continue In How Police Enforce Drug Laws, New Studies Show

Marijuana legalization and decriminalization brought the War on Drugs to an end in many parts of the United States. But not, new studies show, in all areas or for all Americans. Even where weed is legal, arrests continue. 

The American Civil Liberties Union recently produced two reports that show marijuana arrests remain widespread across the country and people of color often are the target.

The reports, based on arrest statistics from across the country, indicate the downward trend in marijuana arrests that started in 2010 has stagnated. Marijuana arrests still make up 43 percent of all drug arrests, a higher rate than any other drug, according to the ACLU. Nine of 10 arrests are for possession.

“The war on people who use marijuana is still wreaking havoc in much of the U.S., particularly against people of color,” the ACLU wrote. “Legalization is still the answer, but it isn't enough. Racial disparities in arrests persist nationwide and have not improved in recent years, and overall marijuana arrests are still widespread.”

Current marijuana law enforcement has created two Americas.

In one report, “A Tale Of Two Countries: Racially Targeted Arrests In The Area of Marijuana Reform,” the ACLU reported that more than six million marijuana arrests happened between 2010 and 2018. That’s during a period when adult-use and (especially) medical marijuana legalization swept the country. 

Law enforcement in states that have legalized cannabis arrest people at a lower rate than those that have not. However, it’s still possible to get arrested in states where marijuana is legal for a variety of reasons, including possessing weed over a certain limit, using marijuana in a prohibited place or underage possession.

Nationwide, the report found black people 3.6 times more likely to get arrested on marijuana charges than white people. While rates vary by state, black people are more likely to get arrested in all 50 states.

Racial disparity in arrests is not a red state, blue state issue.

How big is the disparity where you live or run a business? A second report from the ACLU takes a look at marijuana-related arrests at the state and county level.

Colorado has the least racial disparity in marijuana arrests among all U.S. states. Other states that have the lowest racial disparity are Alaska, Hawaii, California, Oregon, Maryland, Washington, Arkansas and Texas. 

On the other end of the spectrum, black people are almost 10 times more likely to get arrested on marijuana charges in Montana and Kentucky, the highest rates in the country. Other states among those with the highest racial disparity in marijuana arrests include Illinois, West Virginia, Iowa, Vermont, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wyoming and South Dakota.

The statistics upend the “red state, blue state” narrative some apply on racial and marijuana issues, especially considering that more blue states have legalized weed. For example, the report’s numbers indicate that a black person in Massachusetts and Connecticut is four times more likely than a white person to face arrest. That’s a rate higher than Mississippi, Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Louisiana and South Carolina, all of which have a rate lower than the national average.

While those numbers are interesting, it’s important to keep in mind that even in states with “lower” rates, a  black person is usually at least twice as likely to get arrested. 

The ACLU argues that states must legalize marijuana “as a matter of social justice” but also pursue broader criminal justice reform to ensure that “harms of the war on marijuana do not simply re-materialize in other ways after legalization.”

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