Friday is 4/20— a day of stoner jokes, and, yes, lighting up. And with the recent legalization of marijuana in states like Vermont and California, it’s going to be an even happier holiday for some. But one thing that may get lost amid the smoke is that there is still an ongoing war on drugs that disproportionately targets people of color.
Research shows that there’s a clear racial discrepancy in who is arrested for marijuana possession, and that discrepancy even exists in states that have legalized marijuana.
As of January, weed is currently legal in nine states and Washington, DC. But laws still exist in some of these states that bar public consumption of marijuana, ban marijuana sales, and prohibit marijuana use for people under 21. A recent report by the pro-legalization Drug Policy Alliance found that even as arrests in states that legalized pot decline for black and white people, black people are still more likely to be arrested.
Marijuana legalization hasn’t ended racial disparities in arrests
Take Colorado, one of the first states to legalize pot back in 2012, and the first state to allow recreational marijuana sales in 2014. According to a 2016 report from the Colorado Department of Public Safety, the arrest rate for black people for weed-related offenses is still nearly three times that of whites. While marijuana arrests in general have decreased, this hasn’t affected all groups equally. “The decrease in the number of marijuana arrests by race is the greatest for White arrestees (‐51%) compared to Hispanics (‐33%) and African‐Americans (‐25%),” the report notes.
As Vox’s German Lopez has explained, these disparities exist in other states that have legalized marijuana and reflect the presence of racial bias in the criminal justice system. The difference isn’t explained by black and white marijuana use rates, since surveys show that black and white Americans use the drug at similar levels. But that data didn’t stop a Republican legislator in Kansas from arguing earlier this year that black people respond “the worst” to marijuana “because of their character makeup, their genetics.”
There is a concern that the recent wave of legalization will leave black Americans behind.
Racial justice activists, many of them black women, argue that for real change to occur legalization must include a change in how drug laws are enforced by police officers, and have incorporated the issue into the broader conversation about race and policing. And black people are also working to increase their presence among those starting marijuana businesses in states that allow sales.
“As white people exploit the changing tide on marijuana, the racism that drove its prohibition is ignored,” Vincent M. Southerland, executive director of NYU Law’s Center on Race, Inequality and the Law, and Johanna B. Steinberg of the Bronx Defenders recently wrote for the New York Times. “So are the consequences for black communities, where the war on drugs is most heavily waged.”
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