Racial Disparity Arrests

States that have failed to remove criminal penalties for marijuana possession have experienced increased arrest rate disparities over the past two decades, according to data published in the journal JAMA Health Forum.

A team of researchers affiliated with Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk and with Saint Louis University in Missouri assessed marijuana possession arrest trends for White people and for and Black people over a 20-year span (January 2000-December 2019) in states with and without marijuana policy changes.

They reported that both legalization and decriminalization policies were associated with “large decreases” in the aggregate number of adults arrested for marijuana violations, but that legalization was associated with “the largest decrease in raw differences between Black and White arrests.” (In states with only decriminalization, race-based disparities persisted over time despite decreases in the overall number of arrests.) By contrast, “States that did not implement any policy change showed no meaningful change in arrests for White individuals and an increase for Black individuals, thereby increasing the arrest rate disparity over time.”

Authors concluded, “This study highlights the importance of statewide policies in reducing cannabis possession arrests. … While these results do not unambiguously favor decriminalization nor legalization, increases in arrest rate disparities in states without either policy highlight the need for targeted interventions to address racial injustice.”

Commenting on the study’s findings, NORML’s Political Director Morgan Fox said, “Even though removing criminal penalties for simple cannabis possession is not a surefire fix for the racially disparate application of the law, it does lead to a drastic reduction in the number of people of color that are disproportionately and unnecessarily caught up in the criminal justice system.”

He added: “It is appalling, though not particularly surprising, that we are seeing increases in racially disparate arrest rates in states that continue to cling to outdated prohibition policies. Regardless of intent, it is clear that the continued criminalization of cannabis perpetuates and exacerbates unequal enforcement under the law and the associated harms that come with it. This is not something that we can tolerate in the 21st century, and these findings should incentivize lawmakers to embrace sensible cannabis policy reforms.”

Despite similar consumption patterns, Black Americans are nearly four times as likely as Whites to be arrested for marijuana-related violations.

The full text of the study, “Association of racial disparity of cannabis possession arrests among adults and youths with statewide cannabis decriminalization and legalization,” is online here. Additional information is available from NORML’s fact-sheet, ‘Racial Disparities in Marijuana Arrests.’


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