Voters and lawmakers in California have been easing the state’s marijuana prohibitions for many years, in large part to fight the plague of racial disparities in arrest rates.
But while the overall number of small-time busts has dropped, for both white people and racial minorities, the gap in law enforcement between the two groups is growing rather than shrinking, according to a new study.
The Drug Policy Alliance and the ACLU of California teamed up in May to collect data on arrests for pot possession broken down by race. They found that blacks are arrested or cited for possession at roughly four times the rate at which whites are busted.
If anything, the disparities have grown worse since cannabis was decriminalized in California six years ago, the study found. Voters approved medical marijuana in 1996, and criminal penalties for recreational possession were stripped from state law in 2010.
Disparity is worsening
“The disparity is worse than the rates at which blacks were arrested for simple possession of marijuana prior to 2011, when possession was a misdemeanor offense,” said Amanda Reiman, California policy manager of the Drug Policy Alliance. “In 2010, black were 2.2 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession.”
The study was based on data gathered from Los Angeles and Fresno. Whites, blacks, and Latinos use marijuana at roughly the same rate, yet Latinos and black residents were cited or arrested at far higher rates.
Blacks in Fresno are currently arrested at 3.6 times the rate at which white people are arrested, while Latinos are busted 1.7 times more often than whites. In Los Angeles, blacks face arrest 4 times more often than whites, Latinos 1.4 times. And the Drug Policy Alliance says these disparities could be much greater, given problems gathering accurate statistics in the Golden State.
“California has a long history of data collection challenges regarding Latinos, who are often classified by law enforcement officers as white and thus undercounted,” Reiman said.
Legalization push well underway
A push is underway to fully legalize cannabis in California, removing civil fines for possession and crafting regulations for a legal, tax-paying pot industry. The odds of success are high, with public support for the idea topping 60 percent in polls.
Reiman said the legalization proposal, known as the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, could finally take a dent out of the racial disparities in arrest rates.
“It’s far past time to stop the bleeding of prohibition that has been centered in our most vulnerable communities, and legalize cannabis in California,” he said. “Once we move cannabis into a regulated market, we can slowly dress the wound left by decades of disparate enforcement.”
The legalization petition has already been approved to appear on the November ballot. The campaign to pass it is being spearheaded by tech billionaire Sean Parker and has won endorsements from key figures, including the NAACP of California and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom.