Marijuana is an invaluable tool for law enforcement in America—but only so long as cannabis remains illegal, which is exactly what most law-enforcement lobbies and pro-police lawmakers want.
Under prohibition, cannabis is an incomparable catch-all excuse. The mere whiff of cannabis is sufficient probable cause for a traffic stop or, where the police-state tactic is still accepted, start a stop-and-frisk routine.
And that all ends as soon as cannabis is legalized.
According to a report from the Stanford Open Policing Project, which analyzed more than 100 million traffic stops across 31 states, motorists of all races are as much as three times less likely to be stopped and searched where, thanks to legalization, marijuana is no longer available as an excuse.
“After marijuana use was legalized, Colorado and Washington saw dramatic drops in search rates,” the report’s authors wrote. “That’s because many searches are drug-related. Take away marijuana as a crime and searches go down.”
As the Washington Post’s Wonkblog reported, the data includes “traffic searches initiated for any reason, but excludes searches following an arrest.” Meaning, it’s a good indication of what cops do when there’s not necessarily a clear indication of a crime being committed—and it’s proof positive that marijuana, the world’s most common illicit drug (where it’s still illegal, at least), is also deeply ingrained in police tactics.
This means marijuana legalization—a common-sense move we wholeheartedly advocate, for obvious reasons—has serious implications for communities of color who disproportionately suffer violent encounters with law enforcement.
Fewer stops mean fewer potential confrontations with police.
In the wake of the acquittal of the officer filmed fatally shooting Philando Castile, a Minnesota motorist whose death less than 30 seconds into a traffic stop was recorded on Facebook Live, the importance of this cannot be overstated.
The data does have some limitations, as the Marshall Project pointed out: It analyzes only data from state police agencies, including the California Highway Patrol, whose main roles are enforcing the law on highways, and not local police agencies who would be responsible for law enforcement in cities like Denver and Seattle, where most of both states’ black population is concentrated.
And as the data reveals, although stops-and-searches of black and Latino drivers dropped significantly after marijuana was legalized in Colorado and Washington in 2012, obvious and outrageous racial biases remain.
In Colorado, black and Latino drivers are still almost three times as likely as to be stopped and searched as whites. In Washington, black and white motorists briefly achieved parity in 2014.
Everywhere else the researchers “had data and recreational marijuana is still illegal, search rates remain high.”
And while the data is a potent argument for marijuana legalization as a crucial element of sweeping criminal-justice reform—all of which is at serious risk in the Trump era under Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s Justice Department—the Marshall Project also suggests that legalization is not as an effective deterrent with local police.
They tell the tale of 33-year old Ryan Brown, an Iraq war veteran pulled over by police a block from his home in 2015. Brown, who was never charged with a crime, won a $212,000 settlement after he was pulled from his car without being given a clear reason.
Later, the police, who to this day claim they acted properly, said that Brown was stopped because he lived in a high-crime area—a common excuse easily deployed in any urban area.
At the same time, as Brown’s situation demonstrates, stops with no probable cause can result in ramifications, including monetary settlements, for police. And as the data shows, removing marijuana from criminal statutes would affect a profound change in police tactics and attitudes—meaning, in case it wasn’t already obvious, that cannabis legalization is a civil-rights and social-justice issue that touches people who would never consider smoking a joint.
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