clock menu more-arrow no yes

After Colorado legalized marijuana, arrests fell for white kids — but rose for black kids

A person smokes a marijuana joint. Shutterstock

Now that recreational marijuana has become legal in Colorado, not all the kids are all right. Specifically, black kids are actually more likely to be arrested over pot after legalization — while their white counterparts are less likely to be arrested.

A new report by the Colorado Department of Public Safety has the details: For white kids ages 10 to 17, the marijuana arrest rate fell by 9 percent between 2012, the last year in which pot was illegal in Colorado, and 2014, the first year of legal pot sales. For black kids of the same age, arrests went up by 52 percent. And for Hispanic kids, arrests rose by 22 percent — although they remained less likely to be arrested for pot than their white or black counterparts. Most arrests were for possession.

According to a 2013 survey conducted by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, black and Hispanic kids are slightly more likely to use marijuana than their white counterparts: About 17 percent of white high school students reportedly used pot in the previous 30 days, while 25.9 percent of black students and 23.6 percent of Hispanic students did.

Even so, the disparities in arrests are so massive that the differences in use rates don't explain the full difference in arrest rates: Although black students are 1.5 times as likely to use pot, they're 2.2 times as likely to be arrested for the drug.

In 2012, Colorado voters legalized marijuana for adults 21 and older. While this left pot illegal for anyone under 21, it was expected that cops would spend less time enforcing marijuana laws in general — but enforcement varies vastly at the local level and, apparently, on the basis of race.

Juvenile arrests for marijuana do not typically involve jail time, but they do impose a fine and require a drug education class to get the record expunged, Amanda Chicago Lewis reported for BuzzFeed.

Meanwhile, overall marijuana arrest rates — those that include adults 18 and older — dropped by nearly half. But racial disparities remained overall, with black people nearly three times as likely to be arrested for marijuana in 2014, up from nearly two times in 2012.

Drug policy reform can't solve all racial disparities in the criminal justice system

The report shows the limits of marijuana legalization in solving systemic disparities in the criminal justice system. Overall arrests did fall, and that had a disproportionate benefit for black adults — although not black kids — since they were more likely to be arrested in the first place. But some sharp disparities remain, even among adults.

To truly deal with the racial bias in the criminal justice system, then, it's not enough to just limit laws that have a disproportionate impact on minorities. Instead, reform will need to look at broader issues, such as subconscious racial biases — known as implicit bias — and the many socioeconomic factors that may make police more likely to patrol neighborhoods in which black kids are more likely to live.