Five years after the legalization of cannabis in Washington, D.C., racial bias is still prevalent in arrests for marijuana-related offenses in the nation’s capital, according to an analysis of police records by the Washington Post. Between 2015 and 2019, nearly 90% of those arrested for cannabis-related crimes in Washington, D.C. were Black, although African-Americans make up only 45% of the city’s population and multiple studies have shown comparable rates of marijuana use among white people and Black people.
In 2014, voters in Washington, D.C. approved Initiative 71, a ballot measure that permitted possession of up to two ounces of marijuana by adults 21 and older. The initiative also allowed adults to gift up to one ounce of weed to other adults and for the home cultivation of up to six cannabis plants. Support for the measure was bolstered by a 2013 report from the American Civil Liberties Union that showed starkly disparate enforcement of the nation’s marijuana laws, including in Washington, D.C. where Black people were eight times as likely as white people to be arrested for possession.
But Republicans in Congress, flexing their power over the city’s budget, blocked Washington from eliminating penalties on public consumption and cannabis sales. That led police in the city to continue “buy and bust” operations and other law enforcement actions aimed at marijuana.
“The goal was to not only eliminate the criminality associated with cannabis but to establish a regulatory system for distribution,” G. Malik Burnett, a leader of the effort to reform Washington’s cannabis policy, told the Post. “When there’s a gray area, police are able to enforce what they feel they should enforce.”
Between 2015 and 2019, D.C. Metro Police made 3,631 arrests for marijuana-related offenses.
While arrests have declined significantly since the passage of Initiative 71, 89% of those arrested during that time were Black. That figure mirrors the 89% of arrestees who were Black during the three years prior to legalization. To conduct the analysis, the Washington Post reviewed the records of more than 11,500 marijuana arrests by Metro Police between 2012 and 2019. The data was obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the newspaper.
Black Neighborhoods Targeted
Georgetown University law professor Vida Johnson said that police in Washington, D.C. make a deliberate effort to focus their drug enforcement activities in the city’s Black neighborhoods.
“Rather than go to American University or George Washington’s campus, where we know there are marijuana sales, they’re focusing on poor communities of color that are mostly African-American,” Johnson said.
“And to what end?” she continued. “We have already decided as a community that marijuana isn’t dangerous.”
Metro Police declined to comment on the racial disparity in marijuana arrests revealed by the Washington Post analysis. But spokesperson Kristen Metzger said in an email statement that the department “respects the intent” of Initiative 71 and “makes very few arrests” for cannabis-related offenses. Metzger added, however, that the police department “takes illegal distribution, especially where it is linked to violent crime, very seriously and we will continue to protect our residents by enforcing these laws.”