Black People Continue to Be Targeted for Marijuana Arrests Even in Age of Legalization, Report Shows

A new report from the ACLU shows that law enforcement continues to pursue cannabis arrests despite cannabis reform, and that racial disparity remains prevalent in those arrests.

Despite the increasing number of states decriminalizing cannabis, police continue to arrest black people at disproportionate rates for marijuana possession, a new American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) report shows.

In every state in the country, a black person is more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person, even though black and white people use cannabis at similar rates. But in some states, black people are up to six, eight, or almost 10 times more likely to be arrested, according to the report’s findings.

“As we begin a new decade, it is time to assess the progress and failures of this country’s marijuana policies at the state and county level with regard to racial justice. This report provides a new, unprecedented examination of the state of marijuana enforcement in the U.S. and the ramifications of decriminalization and legalization efforts — on overall arrests, and specifically on the racial inequities perpetuated by this war,” the report’s authors wrote.

The ACLU released the new report on the unofficial cannabis holiday, 4/20, to highlight the racial disparities that are ongoing in the American law enforcement system despite criminal justice reform. To date, 11 states plus the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for recreational and medical use, while 22 states have legalized cannabis for medicinal use only.

Overall arrest rates for marijuana possession have dropped by 18 percent since 2010 for both black and white individuals. However, racial disparities in those arrests have not improved, and in some jurisdictions, the gap in racial disparities has worsened. In 31 states, racial disparities were actually larger in 2018 than they were in 2010, the ACLU report showed.

Why is the war on marijuana still happening in the U.S.? In the report, the authors suggest that police harassment is a means of “surveillance and social control.”

“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’s authors wrote.

At a Glance: ACLU’s Findings

The ACLU report on racial disparity in marijuana arrests uses data from 2010-2018. The report’s primary findings include:

  • On average in America, a black person is 3.64 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person.
  • In 2018, there were nearly 700,000 cannabis arrests, accounting for more than 43% of all drug arrests.
  • Nine out of 10 of those marijuana arrests were for possession.
  • In 2018, police made more cannabis arrests than for all violent crimes combined, according to the FBI.
  • Montana, Kentucky, Illinois, West Virginia, and Iowa had the highest racial disparities in marijuana possession arrest rates.

About the ACLU Report

The ACLU first published a national report on marijuana arrests in 2013 titled, “The War on Marijuana in Black and White” which analyzed rates of marijuana arrests from 2001-2010. The new report “A Tale of Two Countries: Targeted Arrests in the Era of Marijuana Reform,” updates the former report analyzing marijuana arrests from 2010 to 2018.

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