Even in weed-friendly states, marijuana users of color are still targeted by police


The overwhelming evidence shows that America’s war on drugs has had a disproportionate impact on minorities, despite the fact that they use illegal drugs at about the same rate as whites (8.8% among Hispanics, 9.5% among whites, 10.5% among black people).

At least five states have tried to take the edge off the drug war by easing penalties for marijuana use and possession in recent years. But new studies show that even with reduced consequences, law enforcement is still targeting minorities for pot-related infractions at disproportionately high rates.

The latest study comes from the ACLU of California and the Drug Policy Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to ending the war on drugs. In 2011, California reduced the penalty for possession of one ounce or smaller of marijuana from a misdemeanor to an infraction punishable by up to a $100 fine plus fees.

To see the impact that this has had, the two groups looked at citation data from the Los Angeles and Fresno police departments. They found that black people were being cited for pot-related infractions at rates approximately three- and five-times higher, respectively, than whites. Latinos, meanwhile, were cited 29% and 43% more.

Requests for comment from the Los Angeles and Fresno police departments were not returned.

These findings echo the results of another study published earlier this year by Mike Males, a senior research fellow at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. He looked at pot-related arrests compiled by the FBI in five states, including California, that recently loosened pot laws, or legalized marijuana. While the overall number of arrests in these states plummeted, the racial disparities in arrests persisted.

In three of the five reform states (Colorado, Washington, and Connecticut), disparities in arrests rates of black people versus non-blacks remained roughly the same as before reform laws passed; in one (Massachusetts), disparities increased substantially; and in the fifth (California), they fell slightly. In states that did not reform marijuana laws, African Americans remained three times more likely than other races to be arrested for all instances of marijuana-related infractions throughout the examine period, Males said.

“Reform by itself does not cure racial disparities,” Males told me by phone.

The Drug Policy Alliance also surveyed Colorado and Washington in 2015, and found the same thing: Black people were still more than twice as likely as whites to be charged with public use of marijuana. The Alliance is advocating further statutory reform in California through the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, which would legalize possession; a recent report puts the measure on track to become a ballot initiative this November.

But for Dr. Amanda Reiman, Manager of Marijuana Law and Policy at the Alliance, all of these findings suggest that simply removing pot from criminal statutes will not be enough to prevent minorities from continuing to feel the disproportionate weight of law enforcement’s attention. Instead, she said, greater emphasis must be placed on police tactics.

“[An officer] will say, ‘I’m not a racist person,’ but there’s a psychological culture in policing that started decades ago that perpetuates this idea that people of color are not to be trusted,” she said in a phone interview. “And we see this even among officers of color. Until we really get down to what’s going on psychologically, these disparities will continue.”

Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.

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