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ACLU Releases 4/20 Report on Racist Cannabis Enforcement and Pot Arrests
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Even though more and more states are legalizing or decriminalizing weed, black people are still 3.6 times more likely to be arrested for pot than white people.
Published on April 20, 2020

While cannabis lovers around the world are figuring out how to enjoy today's 4/20 celebrations from their homes, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is taking a serious look at the enforcement of cannabis prohibition laws in 2020.

As of this month, eleven states and Washington DC have all legalized adult-use cannabis, 18 states have decriminalized minor possession, and 33 states have legalized medical marijuana. Yet, according to a new report by the ACLU, the War on Drugs rages on, and people of color are still arrested far more for cannabis crimes than white Americans.

Since 2010, the overall rate of cannabis-related arrests is on the decline. But, 43 percent of all drug arrests made in 2018 were for weed — and 90 percent of those arrests were for simple possession. Pot arrests declined most notably in states that passed adult-use laws, dropping significantly from 174 arrests per 100,000 people in 2010 to 25 per 100,000 in 2018. 

Overall arrest rates also declined somewhat in states that decriminalized. But in some states, like Missouri, weed arrests actually increased after the state decriminalized. And, in prohibition states, pot arrests are on the rise. According to FBI data, the rate of arrests in prohibition states has grown from 256 per 100,000 people in 2010 to 280 per 100,000 people in 2018.

Since the 1930s, people of color and marginalized communities continue to take the brunt of law enforcement when it comes to weed. Even today, black Americans are 3.6 times more likely to get arrested for pot than white people, despite similar rates of pot use. And regardless of the growing trends of decriminalization and legalization, this rate hasn’t decreased since 2010.

In the most conservative states, these disparities are even more extreme. In Montana, Kentucky, Illinois, West Virginia, and Iowa, black people are more than seven times as likely to be arrested for weed than white people. And in individual counties in these prohibition states, racial enforcement disparities reach shocking levels. In some of these counties, black people are anywhere from 20 to 50 times more likely to be arrested for pot than white people.

Overall, most legal or decriminalized states report more equal enforcement of cannabis laws. But, legalization does not guarantee an end to racist law enforcement. In Maine and Vermont, racial disparities in pot arrests increased despite the fact personal weed-use is now legal in these states. Even in Colorado, which has the most equal cannabis law enforcement in the country, black people are still 1.5 times more likely to get arrested for weed than white people.

“Legalization on its own does not address the racial disparities in marijuana arrests or achieve racial equity more broadly in marijuana reform,” said Ezekiel Edwards, author of the report, to Forbes. In order to address these ongoing racial disparities, the ACLU recommends that state governments ensure that legalization or decriminalization laws are focused on racial justice.

“This means not only including equity-focused legislation led and informed by communities directly harmed by prohibition, but also tethering legalization to changing the way police departments treat communities of color,” said Edwards. 

“If marijuana is legalized without reducing racial profiling and the unnecessary harassment and surveillance of people because of the color of their skin or the neighborhood they live in, there will be a drop in marijuana arrests but no tangible impact on the racial disparities of those arrests, or on other arrests for other petty offenses regarding which we consistently find the police treating people differently based on race.”

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Chris Moore
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Chris Moore is a New York-based writer who has written for Mass Appeal while also mixing records and producing electronic music.
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