In 2013, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) released a report showing that blacks were 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than whites. Seven years and 33 medical cannabis laws later, the organization shows that racial disparities in cannabis-related arrests remain virtually unchanged, and have even worsened in some states.

Entitled “A Tale of Two Countries: Racially Targeted Arrests in the Era of Cannabis Reform,” the report analyses cannabis possession arrests from 2010 to 2018 using the FBI’s Crime Reporting Program. Similar to the previous report, it concludes that blacks are more likely than whites to be arrested for cannabis possession, despite similar rates of use in each state.

In some states, such as Montana and Kentucky, blacks were more than  9 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession. “Racial disparities in arrests for cannabis possession exist across the country, in every state, in counties large and small, urban and rural, rich and poor, and with large and small black populations,” the ACLU writes in its report.

Legalization reduces arrests, but “extreme racial disparities” remain

With cannabis legalized in 11 states and authorized for medical use in 33 states, arrest rates for cannabis possession declined by 15 % nationally. But the decline appears to have disproportionately benefited one population. Blacks are even more likely than whites to be arrested for cannabis possession at the national level.

Some states where cannabis is legal, such as California and Nevada, have seen a decrease in the racial disparity of cannabis arrests, but not all. In Maine and Massachusetts, racial disparities increased in 2018 compared to 2010.

Racial profiling at the root of the disparity

Like the 2013 report, this one explores how procedures such as stop and frisk, in which police search individuals they consider suspicious, serve as a driving force in maintaining racial disparities. Multiple nationwide investigations have shown how these policies depend on racial profiling. An analysis of New York City revealed that 90% of arrests in 2016 involve people of color. Another in Newark, New Jersey, found that 73% of those arrests were people of color.

While cannabis use by whites was de facto legal in much of the country, in black communities, police regularly arrested people, especially young people, in the park, on the street, on the train, on the bus, at school, near the community center, on the porch or while driving, searching, usually unsuccessfully, for something illegal and, if they found cannabis, arresting and transporting people to prison,” the report said. “Such police harassment not only criminalizes people of color for engaging in an activity in which whites participate with impunity, but it is a means of surveillance and social control that is counterproductive to public safety and community health.

Arrests for cannabis possession create lifelong barriers

Getting arrested for cannabis is not just a mark on someone’s record but causes “collateral damage”. These include loss of driver’s license, withholding of federal financial assistance, denial of public support, family separation in the child welfare system, loss of immigration status, and prohibition from participating in the $41 billion cannabis industry by 2025.

The ACLU believes that this not only creates “deep and lasting harm to individuals” and stresses the need for legalization efforts to be more inclusive.

Legalization must be based on racial equity and redress,” Edwards explains. If states legalize without redressing the past wrongs of the ban, or failing to address the current injuries caused by arrest and conviction records, or without ensuring that communities whose economic health has been compromised by the ban do not benefit from trade and tax advantages, they will have missed a crucial opportunity to right the wrongs, level the playing field and avoid perpetuating other forms of inequality in the future.

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