The polls say that cannabis is almost certain to be legalized in California this year, but it’s uncertain how that will change policing in the Golden State. The best way to predict is to look at what’s happened to other states after legalization. If you look at arrest rates in Washington and Colorado, you’ll see some good news and bad news. As per a study from Mike Males of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, marijuana arrests plummeted from 2008 to 2014 in both states. Arrests in Colorado fell 60 percent in Colorado while they went down a game-changing 90 percent in Washington.
Much more discouraging are the rates of marijuana arrests for African-Americans in those two states. Before legalization, African-Americans were charged with cannabis-related offenses more than twice as often as non-black people. After legalization, after the law and the police changed their entire worldview of marijuana crime, African-Americans were still charged with cannabis-related offenses more than twice as often as non-black people.
“I am surprised and disappointed by this,” Males said. “The forces that contribute to racial disparities under prohibition are clearly still in place after legalization.”
Many think we’re going to see the same story in California all over again. “What… I know will happen is they will use it as an in and probably try to harass whatever person of color is smoking in the park,” Natasha Williams, an Oakland resident, told NPR News. “Because what is legal for one is not necessarily what’s legal for all.”
Williams says she was harassed by the local cops over a bogus claim of cannabis odor. “I have been pulled over and been told that my car smells like marijuana and put on the sidewalk and had my vehicle searched,” she said. “And I felt like they were fishing.”
Legalization will likely make cannabis smokers across demographics feel more comfortable using in public (even though that won’t be technically legal, it won’t be that illegal). But, if Williams and the statistics are right, then that comfortability will only draw African Americans out into behavior that will invite police scrutiny. Whites and other non-black people, on the other hand, would be less half as likely to get harassed for the exact same behavior.
While Males says that, “such a huge drop in the number of African Americans being arrested is still a good thing,” he still says, “I wish the disparity were gone.”
Photo via Flickr user U.S. Marshals Office of Public Affairs