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Cannabis Decriminalization Reduces Racial Disparity in Arrests of Adults |

Analysing statistical data shows that the cannabis decriminalization laws decrease, but not eliminate the racial disparity among cannabis arrests. This problem has plagued America for many decades. The reduction in racial inequality was observed only among adults. Research did not show a comparable drop for young people.

Recent peer-reviewed research published in an academic journal Social Science & MedicineResearchers from University of California San Diego analyzed statistics from FBI Uniform Crime Reports 2000 to 2019. Researchers used data from 37 states, including 11 that had passed cannabis decriminalization laws in that period to calculate the marijuana possession rates for Black and White.

“Cannabis decriminalization was associated with substantially lower cannabis possession arrest rates among both adults and youths and among both Blacks and whites,” the researchers wrote in their conclusion. “It reduced racial disparity between Blacks and whites among adults but not youths.”

After decriminalization of cannabis, the total number of cannabis arrests in 11 states saw a 70% reduction. The same was true for young marijuana users. Research showed that arrest rates for Black and White adults fell by 17% after the decriminalization of cannabis.

“Cannabis decriminalization seemed to be particularly beneficial to Blacks, who were suffering the most from the adverse consequences of criminal penalties,” the researchers wrote in their report. “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.” 

The data did not show any significant decrease in the number of arrests for Black youth under 18 years. The authors of the study suggested that the rate among young people may have remained steady partly because of the larger disparity among adults before decriminalization, “providing a greater room for reduction.” Among all 37 states analyzed, Black adults were on average four times more likely than white adults to be arrested for a cannabis offense, while Black young people were 1.8 times likelier to face a cannabis arrest than their white peers.

The well-documented racism in cannabis arrests

The disparity between cannabis arrests across the United States is well-documented over decades, despite consistent research showing that marijuana use rates vary among racial groups. 

Researchers from the American Civil Liberties Union noted in a 2020 report that cannabis possession arrests have fallen 18% since 2010. However, law enforcement made 6 million arrests for cannabis possession between 2010-2018. Researchers noted that Black people are more likely to have their cannabis possession confiscated than people of white race in every 50 state.

“On average, a Black person is 3.64 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person, even though Black and white people use marijuana at similar rates,” the ACLU wrote in its report. “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.”

“Indeed, in every state and in over 95 percent of counties with more than 30,000 people in which at least 1 percent of the residents are Black, Black people are arrested at higher rates than white people for marijuana possession,” the report continued.

Even though there is evidence to show that marijuana decriminalization laws reduce the disparity between cannabis arrests by racial groups, reforming marijuana policy hasn’t solved the problem. Even the most comprehensive cannabis reforms have not seen a proportionate increase in marijuana arrests among Blacks or whites.