An analysis of statistical data has found that cannabis decriminalization laws reduce, but not eliminate, the racial disparity in cannabis arrests that has plagued the United States for decades. However, the reduction in racial disparity was observed primarily among adults, and the research failed to reveal a similar drop among arrests of young people.
In a study published recently in the peer-reviewed academic journal Social Science & Medicine, researchers affiliated with the University of California San Diego reviewed statistics from the FBI Uniform Crime Report from 2000 through 2019. Using data from 37 U.S. states including 11 states that passed marijuana decriminalization laws during that time period, researchers calculated cannabis possession arrest rates separately for Black and white people.
“Cannabis decriminalization was associated with substantially lower cannabis possession arrest rates among both adults and youths and among both Blacks and whites,” the researchers wrote in their conclusion. “It reduced racial disparity between Blacks and whites among adults but not youths.”
The 11 states that had enacted cannabis decriminalization measures saw a 70 percent reduction in total adult cannabis arrests after decriminalization, as well as a 40 percent reduction in cannabis arrests among young people. Analysis by researchers showed that the racial disparity in arrests of Black and white adults decreased significantly, dropping by 17 percent after cannabis decriminalization.
“Cannabis decriminalization seemed to be particularly beneficial to Blacks, who were suffering the most from the adverse consequences of criminal penalties,” the researchers wrote in their report. “Taken together, we recommend that lawmakers and public health researchers reconsider cannabis decriminalization as an option of cannabis liberalization, particularly in states concerning the unintended consequences and implementation costs of medical and recreational cannabis legalization.”
However, the data failed to show a significant reduction in the racial disparity in arrests of Black people younger than 18 years old. The authors of the study suggested that the rate among young people may have remained steady partly because of the larger disparity among adults before decriminalization, “providing a greater room for reduction.” Among all 37 states analyzed, Black adults were on average four times more likely than white adults to be arrested for a cannabis offense, while Black young people were 1.8 times likelier to face a cannabis arrest than their white peers.
Racial Disparity in Cannabis Arrests Well Documented
The racial disparity in cannabis arrests in the United States has been well documented for decades, despite research consistently showing that the different racial groups use marijuana at a similar rate.
In a 2020 report from the American Civil Liberties Union, researchers noted that arrests for cannabis possession were down 18 percent since 2010. But law enforcement still made six million such arrests made between 2010 and 2018, and Black people were more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than white people in all 50 states, including those that have legalized cannabis.
“On average, a Black person is 3.64 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person, even though Black and white people use marijuana at similar rates,” the ACLU wrote in its report. “Just as before, such 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.”
“Indeed, in every state and in over 95 percent of counties with more than 30,000 people in which at least 1 percent of the residents are Black, Black people are arrested at higher rates than white people for marijuana possession,” the report continued.
Despite the evidence that shows marijuana decriminalization laws can reduce the racial disparity in cannabis arrests, marijuana policy reform alone has not yet solved the problem. No state, even those that have enacted the broadest cannabis reforms, saw the rate of marijuana arrests become proportionately equal among Blacks and whites.