Over the years, we’ve seen a tumultuous election cycle and endured the never ending pandemic. Wind back to spring of 2020 when people across the country were taking to the streets to protest police brutality and racially-motivated injustices.  Another thing that might be hard to remember – especially for cannabis consumers living in legal states – is that cannabis policies in the United States are deeply rooted in racism dating back decades. Even the term “marijuana” is steeped in racist beliefs. 

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American History: Reefer and Racism

Eric Schlosser, author of the 1994 book Reefer Madness connected the dots between a wave of Mexican immigrants entering the U.S. propelled by the Mexican Revolution and cannabis: 

“The prejudices and fears that greeted these peasant immigrants also extended to their traditional means of intoxication: smoking marijuana. Police officers in Texas claimed that marijuana incited violent crimes, aroused a ‘lust for blood,’ and gave its users ‘superhuman strength.”

Rumors spread that Mexicans were distributing this ‘killer weed’ to unsuspecting American school children.

Black and white screen shot of the Reefer Madness movie with the words, "Tell Your Children" Reefer madness propaganda created rumors about minorities corrupting youth with cannabis. Photo credit: Creative Commons
This furore moved into the 1930’s in the form of Reefer Madness, but that time around was directed at Black jazz musicians. This evolved (devolved?) into a more pernicious form of racist policy from the first director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (now the Drug Enforcement Administration) Harry Anslinger, which was further codified by President Nixon with the 1971 declaration of the War on Drugs, then drilled into young minds through the ”Just Say No” campaigns of the 1980’s. And the beat goes on.  Legalization Affecting Criminalization According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), “Marijuana has been a key driver of mass criminalization in this country and hundreds of thousands of people, the majority of whom are Black or Latinx, have their lives impacted by a marijuana arrest each year.” Every election brings more states into the legal cannabis fold, but does cannabis legalization mean that people of color are being arrested less for legal cannabis consumption and possession? Not so fast. 
Police man arresting a black man Arrests remain biased towards minority groups even with cannabis legalization in some states. Photo credit: Shutterstock
Data shows that in places where cannabis has been legalized that overall arrests go down dramatically. Nonetheless, the racial breakdown of those being arrested remains biased. In Colorado, a 2016 report from the Colorado Department of Public Safety found that after legalization, arrests for Whites dropped by 51 percent, Latinx by 33 percent, and Blacks by 25 percent. The number of cannabis arrests going down is good, right? The answer is, “Yes...but…” Even though overall arrests are down, the ratio remains essentially intact. Recent reports from the ACLU and researchers from Stanford University and New York University, analyzing data from 100 million traffic stops by 50 state patrol agencies and police departments from 2011-2018 conclusively found, “despite legalization, minorities are still disproportionately searched and arrested for marijuana-related offenses.”

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Wrap Up

People of color and white people consume cannabis at approximately the same rate, so what accounts for the difference in arrests? Some research points toward individual racial biases, while others point their fingers at more police presence in minority communities, as well as the socioeconomic factors that compel people to consume cannabis outdoors or in their cars, putting them more at risk of being detected by law enforcement.  In terms of sheer numbers, if you live in a legal state, you are less likely to be arrested for a cannabis offense.