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Racial Injustice Persists in Marijuana Arrests Despite Legalization, ACLU Reports

According to a new report from the ACLU, racial disparities in marijuana arrests in some states have gotten worse—not better—since legalization.

Racial Injustice Persists in Marijuana Arrests Despite Legalization, ACLU Reports
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Even amid the legal era of marijuana in the U.S., Black people in every single state are more likely to be arrested than White people for marijuana, according to recently released data. Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) released “A Tale of Two Countries: Racially Targeted Arrests in the Era of Marijuana Reform,” an expansive report on the improvements—or lack of improvements—in the racial imbalance of America’s criminal justice system regarding marijuana arrests.

While building upon the ACLU’s June 2013 report, “The War on Marijuana in Black and White,” the organization released a long-awaited follow-up. The new report focuses on five key findings: marijuana arrests are still widespread, extreme racial disparities persist, marijuana arrests decreased after legalization or decriminalization, racial disparities persist even in legal or decriminalized states, and data collection strategies thwart efforts for more accurate information.

Several states have legalized or decriminalized marijuana since 2010, yet the intended common goal to decrease discriminatory practices in marijuana arrests haven’t improved as well as expected. Regarding the evidence of racial disparities in marijuana arrests, little has changed in the 50 years since the Controlled Substances Act was signed, first solidifying marijuana policy in the U.S. and paving the way for decades of injustice.

Too Little, Too Late

Since 2010, when the last available data was collected, marijuana arrests in the U.S. in 2018 decreased overall by 18 percent—albeit increasing slightly since 2015. Marijuana arrests made up 43 percent of all drug arrests during 2018, continuing to overshadow any other illicit substance, but dropping slightly from 50 percent in 2010. Nearly 90 percent of marijuana arrests were for simple possession. Predictably, marijuana arrests fell the most in states that legalized, followed by states that decriminalized, however decreases in some states began long before changes in law were implemented.

The report’s findings on racial demographics in marijuana arrests were dismal, at best, considering the universal hope that legalization and decriminalization would lead to the end of racial disparities in marijuana arrests. According to the data, Black people are 3.64 times more likely than White people to be arrested for marijuana possession, despite similar rates of usage. It was a trend that remains universal in  “In every single state,” the report states, “Black people were more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, and in some states, Black people were up to six, eight or almost 10 times more likely to be arrested. In 31 states, racial disparities were actually larger in 2018 than they were in 2010.”

Montana, Kentucky, Illinois, West Virginia, and Iowa demonstrated the highest racial disparities in marijuana possession arrest rates in 2018. Other states listed in the report demonstrated higher racial disparity rates than in 2013, when the last round of data was gathered.

In New Jersey for instance, racial disparities in marijuana arrests in 2018 got worse. According to the report, marijuana arrests for Black people in New Jersey are 3.45 times higher than White people, climbing slightly from the ACLU’s findings in 2010, when Black people were about three times as likely to be arrested for marijuana. Even in Colorado, which should be applauded for having the least discriminatory marijuana arrest rates in 2018, Black people are still 1.5 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana as White people.

Extreme Discrimination

The 110-page report was so thorough, that you can even determine which counties held the most discriminatory practices. In Franklin County, Massachusetts, for instance, Black people are 116.5 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than White people. Following at second, in Pickens County, Georgia, Black people are 97.22 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession as White people. 

The report also delved into the historical racist background of marijuana criminalization at the highest levels of the federal government. For instance John Ehrlichman, counsel to former President Richard Nixon, admitted to racist tactics under the administration decades ago.

“Marijuana legalization has always been a racial justice issue,” the report declares. “Whereas marijuana use by White people has been de facto legal in much of the country, in Black and Brown communities, police have routinely stopped people, particularly youth—at the park, on the street, in the train, on the bus, at school, near school, by the community center, on the porch, or while driving—searching (usually in vain) for something illegal, and, if they found marijuana, arresting and hauling people to jail.”

The report reiterates the continual need to address blatant discrimination in marijuana arrests—a trend that fails to disappear in every state in the union.

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