One of the hopes that pro-pot organizations have in their fight for legalization is that states and the federal government will loosen the penalties given to marijuana offenders. In some states, legislators have already begun the process of making that happen. Inside the epicenter of marijuana reform, Colorado, arrests for marijuana have seen a considerable decline since legal cannabis became law there. But unfortunately, legalization hasn’t fixed the racial issues drug offenses are known to have. An article from Kristen Wyatt of the Associated Press points to a new report by pro-legalization group Drug Policy Alliance, which found that blacks are still much more likely than whites to be charged with cannabis-related crimes.
Researchers looked at drug arrests in all of Colorado’s 64 counties for two years before and two years after legalization in 2012. A positive consequence of legalization, according to the report, was that marijuana arrests in Colorado pretty much stopped after the drug became legal. But on the other end of the spectrum, “racial disparities involving the marijuana crimes that remain, including public use and possession in excess of the one-ounce limit.”
Another positive finding in the report came in the form of total number of charges for pot possession, distribution and cultivation. They fell almost 95 percent, from about 39,000 in 2010 to just over 2,000 last year.
Still, even after legalization, blacks were still more than twice as likely as whites to be charged with public use of marijuana. They were also much more likely to be charged with illegal cultivation of pot or possession of more than an ounce.
“Legalization is no panacea for the longtime issues that law enforcement had with the black and brown community,” explained Art Way, Colorado director for the Drug Policy Alliance.
Tom Newman also of the DPA, looked at things with a more optimistic perspective. “Despite the unsurprising racial disparities, these massive drops in arrests have been enormously beneficial to people of color,” he said.
As for why the state’s largest minority, Latinos weren’t included, it’s because the data came from the National Incident-Based Reporting System, which doesn’t record statistics for Latinos.
As for what law enforcement has to say about the situation, they insist they aren’t racially profiling cannabis users. “Racial disparities exist in other laws. What does that mean, that homicide law, rape laws, weapon laws are racist? There are other factors going on here that we need to address,” said Tom Gorman of the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program.
Some other findings: Last year when Colorado’s recreational marijuana stores opened, blacks were 3.9 percent of the population but accounted for 9.2 percent of pot possession arrests. In 2010, whites in Colorado were slightly more likely than blacks to be arrested for growing pot. After legalization, the arrest rate for whites dropped dramatically but ticked up for blacks. In 2014, the arrest rate for blacks was roughly 2.5 times higher.
The Drug Policy Alliance didn’t conduct a similar study in Washington state, where cannabis has been legal since 2012. But there have been cases where it’s clear that racial disparities exist there as well. Last year, Seattle’s elected prosecutor dropped all tickets for the public use of marijuana through the first seven months of 2014 because most of them were written by one police officer who disagreed with the new law. On top of that, about one-third of the tickets were written up to blacks, who only make up about 8 percent of Seattle’s population.