Despite Recognition of Injustice, Arrest Rates for Cannabis Remain Unequal

By J.J. McCoy, Senior Managing Editor for New Frontier Data

New research from New Frontier Data finds that cannabis arrests account for 41.6% of all drug-related arrests, with 15.7 million Americans having been arrested for cannabis (either possession, sales, or manufacturing) from 1997-2016. Yet application of unequal justice finds that black or Hispanic suspects are arrested and convicted at rates more than 9x that of whites.

The implications are severe, as the so-called War on Drugs continues to exact enormous socio-economic tolls. Hundreds of thousands of people are caught up in the nation’s criminal justice system; the costs borne by those arrested are significant and long-lasting. Arrests and convictions negatively impact educational and employment opportunities, child-custody decisions, immigration status and student financial aid or public housing opportunities. Despite the financial outlay of billions of dollars for more aggressive cannabis enforcement by police departments and other law enforcement agencies nationwide, there have been no noticeable effects overall toward reducing the use or availability of cannabis.

In New York City, Mayor Bill De Blasio campaigned on a promise to close the gap in racial disparity for arrests of cannabis possession, but inequity persists. Though cannabis arrests overall have decreased precipitously, the racial breakdowns persist largely as they had before his taking office in 2014: Black or brown New Yorkers are still being arrested nearly 10x more frequently than whites.

According to figures from the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, from 2011 to 2013, blacks accounted for 51.0% of the arrests, and Hispanics 34.3% of the them, while whites accounted for only 10.6% of arrests. In the first four years of De Blasio’s administration (2014-2017), blacks represented 48.3% of arrests, Hispanics 38.0%, and whites 9.0%. In 2017, blacks represented 48% of arrests for marijuana possession in the fifth degree (possession in a public place, whether burning or, in view of the public), Hispanics 38%, and whites 9%. The New York Times has reported that through the first four months of 2018, nearly 4,000 people were arrested for cannabis possession, some 89% of those being black or Hispanic.

In May, the mayor announced plans to direct the NYPD to stop arresting New Yorkers for public consumption of cannabis, and created a task force to prepare the city for legalization.

New Frontier Data has found that national survey data demonstrates how black, Hispanic, and white people all consume and sell cannabis at similar rates. Yet as described, institutionalized discriminatory practices remain fundamentally unjust. The significant racial inequality is a critical component in the cannabis legalization debate taking place nationally. It has undermined public support for prohibition and contributed to the rapid growth in support for legalization throughout the United States.

J.J. McCoy, New Frontier Data Senior Managing Editor

J.J. McCoy

J.J. McCoy is Senior Managing Editor for New Frontier Data. A former staff writer for The Washington Post, he is a career journalist having covered emerging technologies among industries including aviation, satellites, transportation, law enforcement, the Smart Grid and professional sports. He has reported from the White House, the U.S. Senate, three continents and counting.