Racial minorities have historically been disproportionately targeted by unfair and unequal drug laws. While logic tells us that cannabis decriminalisation would help eliminate this injustice, hard data to support this argument has been lacking until now. However, a new study in the journal Social Science and Medicine has now provided empirical evidence that the removal of criminal penalties for cannabis possession really does precipitate a reduction in racial disparities when it comes to arrests[i].
Cannabis Decriminalisation Levels The Field
The new study uses data from the FBI Uniform Crime Reporting Program to calculate the number of Black and White people arrested for cannabis possession in 37 US states between 2000 and 2019. During this period, 11 of the states included in the study passed laws that brought about the decriminalisation of cannabis, resulting in dramatic shifts in the racial balance.
Overall, “cannabis decriminalisation was associated with a roughly 17% decrease in racial disparity in arrest rates between Blacks and Whites,” write the study authors. Naturally, the total number of arrests also dropped considerably in states that chose to remove criminal penalties for possessing weed, with a 70 percent decrease in apprehensions recorded.
Exactly how the decriminalisation of cannabis brings about such an improvement in racial disparities is not yet clear, although the researchers propose two possible mechanisms. Firstly, they speculate that law enforcement behaviours may not have changed after cannabis decriminalisation, and those police officers may have continued to disproportionately stop and search racial minorities. However, decriminalisation would have prevented these individuals from actually being arrested if found to be in possession of cannabis.
Alternatively, they propose that people from these communities may have deliberately responded to the new laws by ensuring they always carried quantities of weed within the permissible limits, thereby protecting themselves against the possibility of arrest.
Regardless of the mechanism, however, the authors conclude that “cannabis decriminalisation seemed to be particularly beneficial to Blacks, who were suffering the most from the adverse consequences of criminal penalties.”
“Taken together, we recommend that lawmakers and public health researchers reconsider cannabis decriminalisation as an option of cannabis liberalisation, particularly in states concerning the unintended consequences and implementation costs of medical and recreational cannabis legalisation.”
Cannabis Decriminalisation Vs Legalisation
A separate study published in October 2021 found that both decriminalisation and legalisation have a significant role in erasing racial disparities. Using FBI data from 43 states, the researchers looked at how arrest rates changed between 2008 and 2019.
During this period, nine states legalised weed while a further eight implemented cannabis decriminalisation measures and the remaining 26 enacted no policy changes at all. States that legalised saw 561 fewer arrests per 100,000 Black people per year, while White arrests dropped by 195 per 100,000 people[ii].
Decriminalisation, meanwhile, resulted in 449 fewer arrests per 100,000 Black people and a decrease of 117 arrests for every 100,000 White people. In contrast, states that maintained full prohibition saw “no meaningful change in arrests for White individuals and an increase for Black individuals, thereby increasing the arrest rate disparity over time.” These studies are hugely important as they are among the first to provide empirical evidence for the benefits of decriminalising and legalising cannabis with regard to racial equality. As such, the authors of both papers urge lawmakers to act following the facts and do away with prohibition once and for all.
[i] Gunadi C, Shi Y. Cannabis decriminalisation and racial disparity in arrests for cannabis possession. Social Science & Medicine. 2021 Dec 22:114672. – https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0277953621010042
[ii] Sheehan BE, Grucza RA, Plunk AD. Association of Racial Disparity of Cannabis Possession Arrests Among Adults and Youths With Statewide Cannabis Decriminalization and Legalization. InJAMA Health Forum 2021 Oct 1 (Vol. 2, No. 10, pp. e213435-e213435). American Medical Association. – https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama-health-forum/fullarticle/2785582