Colorado Cops Are Still Overwhelming Persecuting Black Cannabis Users
New studies from the Centennial State indicate that legalization has led to overall drops in police stops for cannabis, but racial inequality persists in both pot persecution and representation within the adult-use industry.
Published on June 10, 2020

Colorado is often heralded as America’s model state for cannabis legalization. But even after years of legalization, with the state establishing itself as one of the country’s cannabis tourism capitals, the Centennial State still has glaring issues of racial inequality.

According to a pair of studies reported by the Denver Post this week, Colorado police have continued to racially profile black and brown pot users, while Denver’s massive legal weed industry is overwhelmingly represented by white owners.

In the local industry-specific report, Denver’s Cannabis Business and Employment Opportunity Study found that 74.6 percent of the city’s cannabis businesses are owned by white people, and 68 percent of cannabis employees in Denver are also white. Black residents comprise only 5.6 percent of cannabis business owners, and 5.9 percent of cannabis industry employees. 

“This study sadly confirmed what was widely suspected,” Ashley Kilroy, executive director of Denver’s Excise and Licensing division, said in a statement. “Just like what has been seen across the state and in other legalized markets across the US, Denver does not have a diverse marijuana industry.”

On the other side of the legal cannabis spectrum, separate studies found that police across Colorado have significantly decreased their instances of cannabis interdiction. But when police stops and searches for contraband do occur, they almost always target people of color. 

According to two new reports — one published by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and another published by a team of researchers from both Stanford University and New York University in the journal Nature: Human Behavior — law enforcement data makes it clear that people of color in Colorado are subject to police searches and vehicle stops at much higher rates than other demographics. 

The university-led study “compiled and analysed a dataset detailing nearly 100 million traffic stops carried out by 21 state patrol agencies and 35 municipal police departments over almost a decade,” according to the researchers. They found that “relative to their share of the residential population… black drivers were, on average, stopped more often than white drivers.” The annual per-capita rate of state patrol stops was .10 for black drivers, and .07 for white drivers. And among municipal police stops, the per-capita stop rate was .20 for black drivers, and .14 for white drivers. 

“We found that white drivers faced consistently higher search thresholds than minority drivers, both before and after marijuana legalization,” the researchers wrote. “The data thus suggest that, although overall search rates dropped in Washington and Colorado, black and Hispanic drivers still faced discrimination in search decisions.”

Similarly, the ACLU report looked at national arrest data between 2010 and 2018, and the nonprofit found that people of color are nearly four times more likely to be arrested for cannabis crimes than white people. In Colorado, specifically, the ACLU found that black people are 1.5 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than white people, despite black people only representing 5 percent of the state’s population.


Photo via ACLU

As the country continues to confront police brutality and the systemic, pervasive racism that exists in every facet of American life, state-specific legal cannabis industries will need to make significant changes at every level to reach any semblance of equality.

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Zach Harris
Zach Harris is a writer based in Philadelphia whose work has appeared on Noisey, First We Feast, and Jenkem Magazine. You can find him on Twitter @10000youtubes complaining about NBA referees.
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