April 21, 2020 – The ACLU released a report on 4/20 finding that on average, 3.6 times as many black people are arrested for marijuana possession offenses than are white people in the US, despite similar usage rates. This disparity has not improved over the last decade, and in fact, disparities have actually worsened in most states.
On average, states that have legalized or decriminalized marijuana tend to have lower racial disparities than states in which marijuana remains fully illegal. In some legalized states, such as Maine and Vermont, racial disparities in marijuana possession arrests increased between 2010 and 2018, while in other legalized states, such as California and Nevada, the disparities decreased.
California has the second lowest arrest rate for marijuana possession in the nation, with 9.14 arrests per 100K population, behind only Massachusetts with 4.52 arrests/100K. And our state ranks 46th in the nation in arrest rates by racial disparity, behind only Colorado, Alaska and Hawaii. (Florida and DC did not supply data to study.)
That still means on average blacks are arrested 1.8 times as often as whites for marijuana possession in California. And in some counties, the disparity is greater. Excluding outliers without enough population data for proper analysis, the California counties with the greatest racial disparities in marijuana arrests are: Siskiyou, where blacks are arrested 8 times more than whites, followed by Shasta (6.4 x), Contra Costa (5.4 x), Humboldt (5 x) and Alameda (4.1 x). Other counties with disparities above the national average of 3.6 are Trinity, Glenn, Placer, Sacramento, San Benito, and Alpine. Find your county.
These data are consistent with the CA AG’s yearly crime reports, which have shown a decline in marijuana arrests, but a continued racial disparity in them. In 2018, whites accounted for 25% of all marijuana arrests in California, Hispanics 44% and blacks 16%. California’s population is currently estimated at 36.8% white, 39.3% Hispanic, 15.3% Asian, and only 6.5% black. Possession of less than an ounce of marijuana was decriminalized to an infraction in California in 2011, and as of 2017 it is legal for adults over 21.
Cal NORML deputy director Ellen Komp commented, “It’s a shame that prejudice apparently continues in California when it comes to arrests for marijuana possession, which can affect someone’s rights to employment, education, or housing. We must do better.” Cal NORML is writing to the Sheriffs and Police Chiefs of California, apprising them of these data and asking what they will be doing to bring equity to our laws.