On 4/20, ACLU Highlights Racist Marijuana Enforcement In New Report

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On 4/20, ACLU Highlights Racist Marijuana Enforcement In New Report

April 20, or 4/20, is a day when many people across the world celebrate marijuana culture by toking up, jamming out to tunes and filling up on munchies.

But the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is using the unofficial cannabis holiday to draw attention to a serious issue: Despite the growing number of states that are enacting legalization laws, people of color are still much more likely to be arrested for marijuana than white people are—even though consumption rates are virtually identical across races.

In a new report released on Monday, ACLU reveals that while overall arrests are way down in states that have ended prohibition, racial disparities in remaining enforcement persist in those places. Meanwhile, some still-criminalized states are arresting black people for cannabis at almost ten times the rate that whites are busted.

Here are the key findings of the report—“A Tale of Two Countries: Racially Targeted Arrests in the Era of Marijuana Reform”—which is a follow-up to a similar study the organization released in 2013 that drew broad attention to unfair cannabis arrests rates at a time when legalization was just starting to become a major issue in American politics:

Marijuana Arrests Are Still Widespread Across The U.S.

Marijuana arrests nationally are down 18% since 2010, but there has been an uptick since 2015—even though more states are enacting legalization or decriminalization policies.

Cannabis arrests accounted for 43 percent of all drug arrests in 2018, the most recent year the report covers, and an overwhelming majority of those arrests—89.6 percent—were for possession alone.

Extreme Racial Disparities In Marijuana Enforcement Persist

Overall, black people are 3.64 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession, even though usage rates are comparable. The trend toward legalization and decriminalization hasn’t reduced national trends in disparate enforcement—and in some parts of the country, they have worsened.

African Americans are more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in every single state in the country.

“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,” the report says. “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.”

Marijuana Arrests Decrease After Decriminalization, But Drop More Sharply In Fully Legalized States

Not surprisingly, states that legalized cannabis saw decreases in marijuana possession arrests—though ACLU found that some of these had been experiencing a downward trend even before prohibition was ended.

States with less far-reaching policies that simply decriminalize possession also see reductions in arrests, but not as much as in those places where prohibition is ended altogether. Cannabis possession bust rates are roughly eight times higher in decriminalized states than in ones that have fully legalized, though they are lower than in those where broad criminalization is still the law.

When it comes to arrests for selling marijuana, states with legalization saw an 81.3 percent drop between 2010 and 2018, while decriminalized states experienced a 33.6 percent reduction over that period.

Racial Disparities Persist Even Legalized Or Decriminalized States

Even while overall marijuana arrests are down in legalized and decriminalized states, black people are still much more likely to be busted for cannabis than white people are. “In every state that has legalized or decriminalized marijuana possession, Black people are still more likely to be arrested for possession than white people,” ACLU found.

“Most jurisdictions that have enacted progressive marijuana policy have failed to do so from a foundation of racial justice,” the report warns. “As such, though legalization and decriminalization appear to reduce the overall number of marijuana possession arrests for black and white people alike, such laws have not substantially reduced, let alone eliminated, the significantly larger arrest rates of black people.”

While on average legalized states have lower racial disparities in marijuana possession arrests compared those that have only decriminalized or where prohibition is in full force, Maine and Massachusetts—which both voted to legalize cannabis in 2016—had larger racial disparities in 2018 than they did in 2010.

“The one common finding across every state and the vast majority of counties is that black people are more likely to be arrested for possessing marijuana than white people, regardless of whether possession is illegal, legal, or decriminalized in their state,” the report concludes.

ACLU also reported that shortcomings in police data make it hard to get a full understanding of the unfair impact marijuana enforcement has across racial lines. For example, FBI arrest numbers do not distinguish between Latinos and those of other races, obscuring the particular impact that prohibition has on brown as well as black people.

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Along with the report, ACLU launched an online tool that makes it easy for people to see just how discriminatory marijuana enforcement practices are in their own states.

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