The wave of states decriminalizing and legalizing marijuana has predictably led to a sharp decrease in arrests for drug possession, but it has also helped close the gap of racial disparity when it comes to overall arrests.
A new study from the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) examined 43 states’ arrest records with different laws pertaining to decriminalization and legalization of marijuana. The researchers found “increased arrest rate disparities in states without either policy [decriminalization or legalization] highlight the need for targeted interventions to address racial injustice.”
The racial disparity in the arrest records is greater in states where marijuana is still outright banned. According to the data, these states continue to see rises in arrests among black adults while arrests among white adults have not significantly changed.
For every 100,000 people, over the course of 11 years, there were 561 fewer arrests of black adults in states that legalized marijuana. In comparison, in states where marijuana was still banned, there were only 47.5 fewer arrests of black adults over that same period of time.
The researchers explain that “overall, results revealed that states that implemented a cannabis policy change saw large decreases in arrests compared with states that had no policy reform.”
While rates have gone down broadly in these states, the racial disparity in the number of arrests remains. The average arrest rate from states that decriminalized marijuana saw 448.6 fewer arrests for black adults and 117.1 fewer arrests for white adults. For states that legalized marijuana there were 561 fewer arrests for black adults and 195 fewer arrests for white adults.
The data in the study came from 26 states where there was no policy change, nine where marijuana was legalized and eight where it was decriminalized.
Decriminalization is different from legalization in that it will not charge individuals who are caught with marijuana with a crime, but it does not allow the sale and distribution of recreational marijuana.
The JAMA study highlighted the different impacts of decriminalization and legalization. While both methods lead to a sharp decrease in arrests, legalization closes the racial arrest gap by a more significant margin.
In states that legalized marijuana, the arrest rate per 100,000 people was 38 among black adults and 15.9 among white adults. In states that decriminalized, the arrest rate was 361.4 among black adults and 102.9 among white adults.
This racial disparity may not seem surprising, considering black individuals are charged with marijuana possession four times more than whites, despite that blacks and whites consume it at roughly the same rate.
The War on Drugs led to many low-level drug offenders receiving prison time and criminal records. The researchers note “these results do not unambiguously favor decriminalization nor legalization.” But the data in this study showing the sharp decline in arrests the last decade or so highlights how legalization and decriminalization can reduce arrests in states that may implement similar policy changes.