Racial disparities in cannabis arrests on the rise in states without reforms

8th November 2021

A recent case-control study has revealed that, while cannabis policy changes such as decriminalisation and legalisation are associated with reductions in race-based arrests in the US, racial disparities in states without such reforms are on the rise.

Racial injustice and the War on Drugs are topics that have come hand in hand for as long as the ‘war’ has existed. For example, a 2013 American Civil Liberties Union Report revealed that, while Black and White individuals use cannabis at roughly the same rate, Black individuals are almost four-times more likely to be arrested for possession of the drug.

Similar disparities can be seen in the UK, where data has shown that Black individuals may be as many as 12-times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than their White counterparts.

Since the publication of these findings, many states in the US have embraced cannabis policy reforms, with almost two-thirds of all states now having introduced decriminalisation or legalisation measures.

Nineteen states, plus Washington D.C., have now legalised adult-use cannabis. Even more states have introduced decriminalisation measures, meaning that those found in possession of cannabis for personal consumption will not face criminal charges.

In many states where cannabis legalisation has been introduced, so to have some form of social justice measure, designed to address the damage done to communities of colour throughout the so-called ‘War on Drugs’.

Race-based cannabis arrests in reformed and non-reformed states

The case-control study assessed race-based arrest data from the Uniform Crime Reporting Program and Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results county-level population data from January 2000 through December 2019.

Fourty-three states were included for analysis: Nine of these states had implemented cannabis legalisation, eight had implemented decriminalisation, and 26 had no policy change.

Researchers assessed cannabis arrest rates for Black and White adults and youths per year and by state to determine associations between cannabis reform and racial disparities in cannabis-related arrests.

This study, recently published by JAMA Health Forum, reveals that decriminalisation and legalisation reforms have been associated with large reductions in race-based arrests among adults. However, this may not be the whole story, as other findings in the same report show that, over time, racial disparity in cannabis-legal jurisdictions may continue to grow – particularly among youths.

The study states that, “although decriminalisation and legalisation appear to be associated with reduced arrest rates across racial groups, they do not affect the relative racial disparity”. The primary goal of the study authors was to “assess how the timing of cannabis-related policy changes are associated with differences between Black and White adult and adolescent cannabis possession arrest rates and how any changes in rates compare with states without policy changes.”

Assessing racial disparities in cannabis-related arrests

All values are reported as the mean number of arrests per 100,ooo persons. Changes in arrest rates were compared using data from 2008 (before the implementation of any cannabis reform policy) with the same data from 2019. The researchers then presented racial arrest rate rations over time to “compare the relative racial disparity between legalisation, decriminalisation, and no policy change states by age group.”

The effects of legalisation

In states that implemented legalisation, the arrest rate in 2008 was 599.2 for Black adults and 210.9 for White adults. In 2019, the corresponding numbers were 38.0 for Black adults and 15.9 for White adults. For adolescents in states that eventually legalised cannabis, in 2008 (before policy change) arrest rates were 207.0 for Black youths and 209.5 for White youths. In 2019, these rates were 75.9 and 78.3, respectively.

The researchers concluded that, in states that legalised cannabis, there was a reduction in racial disparity among adult arrests from 2018 to 2019. Similarly, legalisation was also associated with a reduction in the relative racial disparity from 2016 to 2017; however, the disparity was then seen to grow during the following years.

The effects of decriminalisation

In states that decriminalised cannabis during the study period, arrest rates dropped from 810.0 in 2008 to 361.4 in 2019 for Black adults and from 220.0 to 102.9 for White adults. Adolescent arrest rates also fell from 299.1 to 143.0 for Black youths and from 219.7 to 95.0 for White youths.

Similar to the trend seen in states that legalised cannabis, decriminalisation was associated with a reduction in the relative racial disparity from 2016 to 2017, but with an increase in the following years.

Arrest rates in states with no policy change

In states that did not implement cannabis policy changes during the study period, arrest rates were seen to increase over time for Black adults and remain stable for White adults, overall. However, a slight decrease in arrest rates was identified in both Black and White adults from 2018 to 2019, falling from 818.5 in 2008 to 771.0 in 2019 for Black adults and from 203.3 to 170.3 for White adults).

Arrest rates for both Black and White youths were also seen to decline slightly from 2008 to 2019. However, no policy change was still associated with an increase in the relative racial disparity in cannabis-related arrests.

Understanding the data

The results of this study suggest that, while cannabis legalisation may be associated with “the largest decrease in raw differences between Black and White arrests; these reductions do not necessarily reflect the actual effect of policies because the downward trend begins well ahead of implementation.”

For example, data shows that, among adults, legalisation states exhibited 1-year and 2-year anticipatory effects for Black adults and 1-year, 2-year, and 3-year anticipatory effects for White adults, meaning that arrest rates were already decreasing in these states prior to legalisation.

In contrast, in states that decriminalised cannabis, an arrest rate reduction was seen for both Black and White adults during the year of policy implementation: the year of decriminalisation implementation showed a reduction of 292 arrests for Black adults and 98 for White adults.

Researcher Conclusions

The researchers conclude their study by stating the importance of statewide policies in reducing cannabis possession arrests. While these findings do not ambiguously favour decriminalisation of legalisation as a concrete route to addressing racial disparities in cannabis-related arrests, they do identify an increase in racial disparities in states that have not implemented either policy, highlighting the need for targeted interventions to address racial injustice in relation to cannabis-related arrests.

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