Nationwide, one in approximately twenty arrests is for simple marijuana possession. Although the total number of arrests for marijuana possession in the United States decreased in almost a half between 2010 and 2014, marijuana-related arrests remain near record-high levels.
According to the latest report released by the Colorado Department of Public Safety, marijuana was responsible for six percent of all arrests in Colorado in 2012 and three percent in 2014.
The FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting Program estimated that at least 620,000 Americans were arrested for cannabis possession in 2014; this is equal to approximately one case per minute. These figures are very rough estimates because many states either do not report arrest data to the FBI or do so only to a limited extent.
The arrest data revealed one consistent and, regrettably, long-standing trend—significant racial bias.
After comparing the marijuana arrest data, released by the FBI, from before and after the legalization of recreational cannabis in Colorado and Washington in 2012, the racial disparity became evident. Nearly 90 percent of those arrested were people of color—mostly African-Americans or Hispanics.
Despite the fact that marijuana usage rates among blacks and whites are roughly equal, the weed-related arrest rate for people of color is significantly higher than for white people.
In New York City, people of color accounted for nine out of ten arrests made on suspicion of cannabis possession and sale. According to the director of Police Reform Organizing Project (PROP), Robert Gangi, these disturbing statistics show that arrest practices are marked by racial bias and inefficiency. He also thinks that police officers continue to arrest far more black and Hispanic people than whites for misdemeanors like cannabis possession.
Although 2.5 million people of color live in California—more than in any state where cannabis is legal for recreational use—you will barely see many of them standing behind the counter of the nearest dispensary, or sitting on discussions at cannabis conferences, or being present in the courtroom at the latest marijuana court case.
Persistent racial disparities in cannabis arrests, sentencing, and convictions are not a new phenomenon in the United States. Almost eighty years ago, Federal Bureau of Narcotics Director Harry Anslinger petitioned Congress to prohibit cannabis saying that “reefer made black people think that they were as good as whites” and adding that most marijuana consumers were “Negroes, Filipinos, Hispanics, and entertainers.”
No matter how weird it sounds, but the legalization of cannabis and the drawdown of the war on drugs are almost two unrelated processes. In theory, most Americans no longer consider smoking or growing cannabis to be a crime worthy of half a lifetime in jail. But in fact, the legalization represents separate policies carried out by separate laws with little consideration given to how new policies might affect the already excising ones. Medical marijuana is legal under some state laws and absolutely illegal under federal.
Of course, some people might believe that cannabis legalization could be a magic wand to fix racial injustice, but they have not considered the fact that the roots of disparities in policing go back well before the drug war. So, it takes more than a couple of drug reforms to fix them.
On the other hand, there is some good news: the report shows that the black arrest rate for cannabis possession decreased by 27 percent since 2013. This figure comes along with a decrease in fatal car accidents and crime rate, as well as a significant increase in tax revenue.