Marijuana Legalization: Mostly for White People

It was an enjoyable experience to work with Ian Urbina and Ezekiel Edwards in examining ACLU data on the difference between the Black and White arrest rate for marijuana possession. We had somewhat different takes on the data, but certainly all want there to be equality under the law, which is currently not the case in much of the U.S..

Why has the softening of marijuana enforcement in the past few years apparently not reduced the African-American arrest rate? The answer may lie in political economy. Until recently, support for legalizing/decriminalizing marijuana has been much higher among Whites among Blacks, which may help account for why enforcement softening spread where it did in the U.S..

As context, the most recent U.S. census reports that 13.1% of the US population is Black. The states that have decriminalized marijuana or significantly expanded an existing decriminalization statute in the past few years are below, with their Black population percentage:

California 6.6%

Massachusetts 7.8%

Connecticut 11.1%

Rhode Island 7.2%

Maine 1.3%

The two states that have legalized recreational marijuana, with their Black population percentage:

Washington State 3.8%

Colorado 4.3%

It’s a marked pattern that has thus far meant that White marijuana users are being affected by softening enforcement more than are Black marijuana users. However, some cities with predominantly Black populations (e.g., St. Louis) have recently moved in the decriminalization direction, which may reduce the arrest rate among African-Americans in the coming years.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

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Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.