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Marijuana legalization doesn't solve racial disparities in the criminal justice system

The legalization and decriminalization of marijuana cuts down on pot-related arrests, but neither policy solves the massive racial disparities within those arrests, according to a new report from the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.

CJCJ looked at five states — California, Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Washington — that have relaxed their marijuana laws in the past five years. Two of those states (Colorado and Washington) completely legalized possession of small amount of marijuana for adults 21 and older, while the rest loosened or repealed criminal penalties for small amounts across all ages.

Marijuana-related arrest rates for all races dropped by roughly two-thirds in four of the five states (Washington didn't have available data). But black people were still nearly five times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than other races, even though black and white Americans use drugs and sell them at similar rates.

marijuana arrests and race

(Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice)

The report recommends more sweeping reforms to fully address racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Policymakers could, for instance, pass reforms that emphasize community policing or better training for implicit biases.

The analysis also found that states that decriminalized marijuana for all ages, as opposed to legalized for ages 21 and up, experienced bigger reductions in arrest rates. The report explained that this was due to key gaps in the legalization laws, including the continuing criminalization of possession by tourists in Washington and by anyone 20 and younger in both Colorado and Washington.

CJCJ's report had some promising findings in other areas as well. Looking at California, researchers found a sharper drop than the rest of the nation in violent deaths, drug overdose deaths, criminal arrests, drug arrests, and driving while under the influence in the two years after the state loosened penalties on marijuana. That doesn't mean marijuana decriminalization caused sharper drops in deaths and crime, but it does suggest decriminalization didn't worsen those outcomes.