This 4/20 week (because let’s be honest, we’re in quarantine, we have permission to celebrate all week this year), many of us will be celebrating on our couches with the joints, edibles, and tinctures of our choice. Outside the comfort of our homes, however, the War on Drugs rages on — even as the legalization movement picks up steam nationwide. New data from the ACLU shows that racial disparities in drug-related arrests persist to this day, even in states that have decriminalized or legalized marijuana.
Currently, 11 states and the District of Columbia have legalized adult-use recreational marijuana, while 18 states have decriminalized it. And one of the most frequently cited arguments in favor of legalization or decriminalization is usually that drug reform will reduce racial disparities in arrests for marijuana possession. The War on Drugs has disproportionately affected communities of color, and black people are more than 3.5 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people.
According to the ACLU report, it is true that, in states where marijuana has been decriminalized or legalized, there has been a decrease in marijuana arrests in general; those states also have lower rates of racial disparities in marijuana-related arrests than states where marijuana is not legalized, where people of color are more than three times as likely to be arrested for marijuana-related offenses than white people. But even in states where marijuana is legalized or decriminalized, racial disparities in marijuana-related offenses still exist. Even in states like Maine and Vermont, where marijuana is legal, the racial disparities in drug arrests actually increased between 2010 and 2018, according to the ACLU data.
This trend is not consistent across the board: in states such as California and Nevada, which have legalized marijuana, racial disparities in drug-related arrests decreased between 2010 and 2018. But even in legal or decriminalized states, such disparities still exist, which the report attributes in part to racial profiling practices such as stop-and-frisk.
The report states that in order to reduce such disparities, states need to make a concrete effort to focus on racial justice in devising drug reform, including by ending such practices as stop-and-frisk and police departments instituting arrest quotas as a measure of productivity. Barring such sweeping reform, however, the report concludes with the sobering takeaway that “clearly, legalization and decriminalization alone are not enough to reverse the disproportionate harm the War on Drugs has caused to Black people and other people of color.”