Black Americans are being arrested for cannabis possession laws at a rate of nearly four times that of white Americans despite the fact that the groups consume cannabis at similar rates. This is an example of racial disparity, defined as “the imbalances and incongruities between the treatment of racial groups” by Howard University. Fortunately, a study recently published in Social Science & Medicine discovered a solution to the racial disparity rampant in cannabis regulation: decriminalization.
According to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), a 2021 analysis of cannabis-related arrests in New York found that 94% of those arrested were people of color. Additionally, Black Wisconsinites were 4.2 times more likely to get arrested, and a 2020 analysis by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) found that Black people were more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession in every single state.
Racial disparity is still significantly prevalent as a result of contemporary and past racial discrimination. A 2013 ACLU report titled “The War on Marijuana in Black and White” found that Black Americans were being arrested at higher rates than white Americans regardless of their economic status, the size of the state, the size of the ethnic population, and whether the areas were urban or rural—all of which can largely be attributed to institutional racism.
John Hudak, deputy director at the Center for Effective Public Management of Brookings, explains that the war on drugs has been “a tool to target Black and Brown Americans and change life trajectories in those communities for millions of people.” He explains that political forces spent a lot of time using cannabis to divide the people and play on “some of America’s worst tendencies around race, ethnicity, civil disobedience, and otherness.”
Hudak paints a powerful picture of the political forces’ efforts. He states, “U.S government officials first painted cannabis as an insidious substance flowing across the border like immigrants from Mexico,” clearly linking the intolerance for cannabis with the intolerance for immigrants and minorities. While legalization and decriminalization will not undo what was done in the past, these legal processes can create a better future for affected groups.
“Legalizing cannabis doesn’t undo past arrests, and record expungement doesn’t make up for the years and decades of fewer educational, employment, and other related opportunities as a result of that drug arrest,” Hudak states. “Nor does record expungement assist the people who have been negatively affected by a family member’s drug arrest and/or incarceration.”
He then goes on to explain that those in authority can use “changes to cannabis laws as an ideal opportunity to address some of the behaviors, choices, and biases that contribute to inexcusable disparities that exist between non-whites and white’s arrest rates.”
Researchers Christian Gunadi and Yuyan Shi from the University of California San Diego assessed whether decriminalization can actually reduce racial disparity in arrests for cannabis possession. In order to do so, they made use of data from 37 states between 2000 and 2019. Gunadi and Shi found that arrests made for cannabis possession decreased by over 70% among 11 states that have decriminalized cannabis.
They also found that the racial disparity decreased by 17% among arrest rates of Black and white citizens. While this is good news, the researchers were unable to find any connection between a reduction in racial disparity among young people regardless of decriminalization. In fact, the team found that there is actually limited evidence that medical cannabis laws decrease possession arrest rates and that it is actually the recreational cannabis laws that are critical for racial disparity reduction.
Even though recreational cannabis legalization appears to be the biggest key to the reduction of racial disparity, it is explained that the overall reduction in arrest rates is proof enough of the benefits of cannabis decriminalization. Research like this is important since, as this study states, “Despite calls for change, research that investigates the association of policy changes with adult and youth arrest rates and racial disparities is scarce, and guidance on the most effective policy remains unclear.”
Something to keep in mind is the fact that the data analyzed was from 2000 to 2019, but most states only legalized cannabis after 2016. This means that the analysis period may not be providing enough data to see the true impact of decriminalization or legalization on racial disparity. The study suggests that the reason behind the decrease in racial disparity could be a result of change among law enforcement officers themselves if not the decriminalization—or both.
The researchers concluded:
“Taken together, we recommend that lawmakers and public health researchers reconsider cannabis decriminalization as an option of cannabis liberalization, particularly in states concerning the unintended consequences and implementation costs of medical and recreational cannabis legalization.”
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