There are many reasons marijuana reformers want to legalize the drug. But maybe the biggest is to cut racial disparities in arrest rates.
It’s a big problem. African Americans across California regularly report racial profiling by police, and pot is at the center of it. This leads to massively overcrowded prisons, unnecessary incarceration, and permanent criminal records that have ruined the lives of generations of black men.
The hope is that once marijuana becomes legal, this disparity will vanish. But is that really true?
Some evidence says yes. Cannabis busts in Colorado and Washington have dropped sharply since voters legalized the drug in 2012. Some evidence says no. In California, for example, many blacks feel police will still use marijuana as an excuse to arrest them.
Legalization will be on the ballot in the Golden State Nov. 8, and voters are widely expected to pass it. The cannabis laws on the books are already fairly liberal, but African Americans say they’re frequently profiled and arrested on flimsy pot charges.
Cannabis used to search minorities
Nashanta Williams, an Oakland resident, described to NPR how police in that city used decriminalized cannabis as an excuse to search and arrest her.
“I have been pulled over and been told that my car smells like marijuana and put on the sidewalk and had my vehicle searched,” Williams said. “And I felt like they were fishing.”
It’s not like that everywhere in Oakland. Cops generally leave white neighborhoods alone and ignore the near-constant smell of burning marijuana in the air.
Williams said she was pulled over while driving through East Oakland in 2016. It’s a predominantly black neighborhood, and she said racial profiling is a fact of life there.
“Back then I drove a ’94 Buick, so I think the stereotype falls into play: ‘old car, smells like weed, what has she got going on?'” she said.
It isn’t hard for police departments to justify these practices by claiming they are simply focusing on “high crime” areas and busting African Americans who commit real crimes. Locals say that isn’t true.
A U.S. Supreme Court ruling from the Prohibition allows police to search a car without a warrant if they smell marijuana (or in that case, alcohol). The rule covers all 50 states, though some provide more protection for motorists under their own laws.
Cops typically use the court’s ruling to stop drivers they say they believe are committing felonies, at which point they may “smell pot” and search the vehicles. These searches sometimes turn up evidence of serious crimes, but only rarely.
African Americans arrested at higher rates than whites
And statistics show African-American motorists are stopped at far higher rates than whites, even for minor moving violations such as broken taillights or driving a few miles per hour over the speed limit.
The big question is whether any of that will change once California voters legalize cannabis.
The drop in overall arrest rates in both Washington and Colorado bodes well for drivers like Williams. Washington has seen a steeper drop in those numbers than Colorado, but whites and blacks in both states are arrested for marijuana offenses at far lower rates than before 2012.
But there are also signs the problem will continue. As long as minor legal offenses allow police to cast a wide net (a net that discriminates against African Americans), they will score more legitimate arrests: burglars, robbers, even murderers.
The problem, of course, is that the vast majority of black drivers are none of these things. A “broken windows” policy can’t be justified in routine traffic stops, at least without putting most of the weight on minority communities. But many police use this approach anyway, hoping they will rack up enough arrests to win promotions or raises. And some are just racist – a fact that will never change.
Tell us what you think: Will legalization make a difference in racial profiling by police? Leave a comment below.