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Racial Disparities in Cannabis Arrests are Up in Areas Without Cannabis Law Reform

· Nov 2, 2021
A small team of researchers from Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk and Saint Louis University conducted a study published in JAMA Health Forum last week that examined how various stat ...

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In states where cannabis policy reforms haven’t been implemented, racial disparities in cannabis-related arrests have increased, new research has found.  

A small team of researchers from Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk and Saint Louis University conducted a study published in JAMA Health Forum last week that examined how various state cannabis policies were associated with racial disparities in cannabis-related arrests of both teens and adults. 

Researchers analyzed race-based arrest data for 43 states from the Uniform Crime Reporting Program and Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results county-level population data between the years January 2000 through December 2019, and then analyzed shifts in arrest rates before and after cannabis policies were implemented.  

They found that both legalization and decrim policies were linked to “large reductions in race-based arrests among adults.” But, when it comes to teenagers, only decriminalization was associated with a drop in both arrests and disparities. 

But, in the states that didn’t implement some kind of new policy change during that time period, cannabis-related arrests for both youths and adults rose over time, prompting researchers to conclude that the “increase is concerning and highlights the need for immediate policy change and implementation.” 

“The absolute reduction in arrests among states with policy reform is an encouraging step toward social equity,” lead author Brynn Sheehan told Cannabis Wire, adding that it’s still “necessary to deliberate” which type of policy is most effective. 

“This is in stark contrast to the increase in arrests seen in states without a cannabis policy change, suggesting that adult arrest rate disparities will continue to increase in states absent an intentional effort to address the issue,” Sheehan added. 

Sheehan added that a crucial aspect of the research was the inclusion of states that had not yet implemented a cannabis policy.  

“While discussing policy reform, it is important and necessary to acknowledge the continually growing disparities among states without cannabis policy change,” she said. 

Sheehan said that she was surprised that event study analyses (statistical methods that researchers use to assess the impact of an event) showed differential timing effects for the policies. In other words, while decriminalization was associated with immediate reductions in arrests, “which was expected,” Sheehan said, “states that implemented legalization saw reductions in arrests prior to policy implementation. Meaning other factors, such as social changes, were likely priming those reductions.”

The research is, to the knowledge of the authors, the first of its kind to compare disparities in cannabis-related arrests in states that have implemented some kind of new cannabis law, with those that haven’t. 

But it’s far from the first research to highlight just how steep racial disparities in cannabis arrests are in the United States. 

In 2013, the American Civil Liberties Union published a watershed report, called The War on Marijuana in Black and White, that found that while Black and white people use cannabis at similar rates, Black people are nearly four times more likely to be arrested for cannabis-related crimes. The ACLU then published A Tale of Two Countries: Racially Targeted Arrests in the Era of Marijuana Reform last year, which found, among other things, that Black people were still 3.64 times more likely to be arrested on a cannabis-related charge, and that “extreme racial disparities in marijuana possession arrests persist throughout the country, and have not improved since 2010.”