• January 28, 2021

Despite legalization, people of color still arrested at a higher rate for marijuana offenses

 Despite legalization, people of color still arrested at a higher rate for marijuana offenses

When will we ever learn?

A Tale of Two Countries: Racially Targeted Arrests in the Era of Marijuana Reform, a report released this week by the American Civil Liberties Union, takes a deep dive into cannabis arrests in the years 2010-18. And when it comes to disparity between white and black Americans, its findings aren’t encouraging.

A 2013 ACLU paper, The War on Marijuana in Black and White, analyzed arrest data between 2001 and 2010 and found that the vast majority were for possession, and that the poor, especially black Americans, were being detained and arrested at a much higher rate than whites.

Things have improved, but the new report found that if your skin is black, you are still much more likely to be arrested for a cannabis offense than if you’re white. Despite adult legalization in several states, usage rates that are about the same, and that overall cannabis arrests have declined by 18 percent in eight years, there were still more low-level arrests in 2018 than in 2015. Marijuana made up 43 percent of all drug arrests, and the majority of those, nine out of 10, were for possession.

“Although, on average, states that legalized marijuana through taxation and regulation had lower rates of racial disparities in marijuana possession arrests than states where marijuana has not been legalized, a distressing pattern continues,” the report concluded. “Racial disparities persist in every state that has rolled back marijuana prohibition—and in some cases, disparities have worsened.”

On average, blacks are three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites. “The question no longer is whether the U.S. should legalize marijuana—it should—or whether marijuana legalization is about racial equity—it is … Rather, the question is: When states legalize, how can they do so through a racial justice lens to address the panoply of harms that have been selectively aimed at Black and Latinx communities for decades?”

If you have never been arrested for a minor offense, it might be difficult to understand how a mistake like that can impact your life, even long down the road, like when it shows up on a work or rental application, a dispute over child custody or the opportunity to participate in the cannabis industry. A local Denver organization, Color of Cannabis, advocates for social-equity cannabis legislation and provides technical business support, mentorship training and partnerships for people and stakeholders negatively impacted by cannabis prohibition. 

Color of Cannabis CEO Sarah Woodson explains that people living in poorer neighborhoods are still treated differently than richer ones. “If people can live in a better zip code and give their kids better schooling, then you might be able to make changes,” she says. “But the poor have always been looked down on in this country.”

A significant problem facing people of color is access to a new legal marijuana industry. Minorities have found it difficult to establish businesses, while whites dominate ownership over the industry. Color of Cannabis aims at reversing this trend through a training center in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood. 

Welton Workspace serves as a forum for intellectual and cultural discovery and equity opportunities in the cannabis industry. Cannabis companies like Boulder-based Terrapin Care Station will offer experts who will volunteer their time to provide technical training, professional development, and a comprehensive launch curriculum for start-ups. From curated panels and distinguished guest speakers, to cross-industry professional networking, Color of Cannabis hopes to create opportunities for personal and professional growth for people of color. 

“Social equity is perhaps the most important issue facing the cannabis industry today,” said Chris Woods, owner of Terrapin Care Station, which has six locations in Colorado and a medical cannabis operation in Pennsylvania. “We’re not discussing whether to legalize marijuana; we’re discussing how to do it. And if the industry doesn’t do more to increase access for people of color, we will have fallen short of our mandate to right the wrongs of a failed drug war. Helping those who have been left behind during that war on drugs should be paramount to our mission as an industry.”  

Arrest statistics also perpetuate the notion that people of color can’t join the cannabis industry. “The first thing is to get people to participate and not be afraid,” Woodson says. “We see a lot of people of color who keep their heads down and are satisfied with what they have. Then you have people that still have negative feelings about cannabis—and have a right to feel that way; for instance, if your father was in prison for a cannabis offense. More people need to speak up for it and embrace it in the community.”

Most importantly, Woodson says, is that those involved in the cannabis industry, no matter their skin color, need to start by expanding their own relationship base. You don’t find out much about other nationalities if you only know one person like that. “You start to diversify your own life,” she says, “and you begin to see people for who they are, not a stereotype.”

Find out more about the Color of Cannabis at its website https://www.thecolorofcannabisco.org/, or by calling (720) 840-7576.

Leland Rucker

Leland Rucker is a journalist who has been covering the cannabis industry culture since Amendment 64 legalized adult-use in Colorado, for Boulder Weekly, Sensi and now TheNewsStation.com. He covered the popular music industry for years, worked extensively in internet and cable news, and co-authored The Toy Book, a history of OK Boomer playthings. Sweet Lunacy, his documentary film co-written and produced with Don Chapman, is a history of the Boulder music scene from the 1950s through the 1980s. He is author and editor of Dimensional Cannabis, the first pop-up book of marijuana.

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