In 2013, the American Civil Liberties Union released a groundbreaking report that examined millions of cannabis arrests across America between 2001 and 2010 and found significant racial disparities in how cannabis laws were enforced. Just one year before its release, Colorado and Washington made history when voters in both states on election night passed ballot measures to legalize cannabis use and sales for adults. Since then, nearly a dozen states have followed.
On Monday, which was also 4/20, internationally recognized as a day to celebrate all things cannabis, the ACLU has released its first follow up report, which looks at arrests from 2010 and 2018, titled A Tale of Two Countries: Racially Targeted Arrests in the Era of Marijuana Reform. As the title suggests, there is a clear difference between states that have legalized (or even decriminalized) cannabis, and those that have not. And while arrests are overall down 18% since 2010, to just over 6 million in those eight years, the core finding of the 2013 report remains the same: black cannabis consumers are 3.64 times more likely than white cannabis consumers to be arrested, despite similar use rates.
“Disturbingly, too much has remained unchanged in the past decade despite several states having reformed marijuana policy,” the report notes. “Just as before, such racial disparities in marijuana possession arrests exist across the country, in every state, in counties large and small, urban and rural, wealthy and poor, and with large and small Black populations.”
And specifically, in states with legal cannabis, that rate of disparity was on average 1.7 times, while in states without legalization it was 3.2 times. In a couple of states with legal cannabis, though, the report notes, “disparities have worsened.” One of those states, for example, in Massachusetts, where voters approved adult use at the ballot box in 2016.
The vast majority of these arrests, nine out of ten, are for possession. A record for a possession arrest can cost a person their job or future employment, housing, or custody of their child.
Also, when it comes to the decline in cannabis arrests, that hasn’t proven to be consistent. The report notes that, compared to 2015, there were nearly 100,000 more arrests in 2018.
It is not enough, the ACLU report concludes, to simply end cannabis prohibition. The question for jurisdictions that legalize is: “how can they do so through a racial justice lens to address the panoply of harms that have been selectively aimed at Black and Latinx communities for decades? These harms include not only arrests, incarceration, and lifelong criminal convictions, but also the loss of jobs, housing, financial aid eligibility, child custody, and immigration status.”
The ACLU makes a number of recommendations, both for local, state, and federal governments, and for law enforcement agencies. On the government side, it calls for clemency and expungement for those incarcerated or with a criminal record, respectively. Also, that “legal markets benefit and are accessible to communities most harmed by the War on Drugs.”
On the law enforcement side, the end and elimination of racial profiling and consent searches, and an investment in “nonpunative programs and community-based services” and better data collection practices “on a range of police practices.”
“The ACLU report is a stark reminder that while significant progress has been made in cannabis policy reform, prohibition still negatively impacts Americans lives, particularly in communities of color,” Violet Cavendish, communications manager at the Marijuana Policy Project, told Cannabis Wire.
“It is clear that legalization significantly reduces cannabis arrests and is a crucial part of broader criminal justice reform, but it is not the cure-all for addressing deep-rooted racial disparity issues in policing.”