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Examining the Racial Divide in Colorado’s Marijuana Arrests

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Back in 2012, when the state of Colorado legalized the recreational use and possession of marijuana, one of the main benefits supporters touted was the potentially drastic reduction in non-violent drug arrests. However, in 2016, the results have been disappointing. When Colorado voted to pass Amendment 64 in 2012, the state’s General Assembly called for a study on the impact of recreational marijuana legalization, with a special focus on law enforcement.

There have long been wildly disproportionate arrest statistics for minorities in the United States, especially when it comes to non-violent drug offenses. The state of Colorado was (and is) no different, and the problem is only getting worse. Overall, marijuana-related arrests are down 46%, from 12,894 to 7,004, between 2012-14. When you dig a little deeper into the data, arrests of Whites fell 51% while those of Hispanics only fell 33%, and African-Americans just 25%. In fact, the arrest rate among African-Americans is still nearly triple that of Whites when it comes to marijuana offenses.

By no means is this a new problem, but rather one that is brought to light after legalization. In 2012, before the end of marijuana prohibition in the state of Colorado, African-Americans were already being arrested at slightly less than double the rate of White Coloradans. In 2014, that number soared to a point where Black citizens were being locked up at triple the rate of Whites.

The data is far more troubling when you look at the teen demographic. The number of White juveniles arrested for marijuana charges dropped 8% while arrests among Hispanics rose 29% and African-Americans saw a whopping 58% increase. Something to keep in mind when looking at juvenile arrest data is that marijuana is only recreationally legal to those 21 years of age or older, so minors are still being arrested for Petty Possession and other lesser charges. Most juvenile arrests happen at school, usually by a school resource officer, and most result in suspensions and mandatory drug classes rather than actual jail time. The total number of juvenile marijuana arrests jumped 34% overall from 2012-14, with the majority arrested for Possession.

These numbers are especially concerning when you consider recent data that shows marijuana use is not that much higher in minority groups than with Whites. When asked if they had smoked marijuana in the past thirty days, 25.9% of African-American students answered affirmatively, compared to 23.6% of Hispanics and 17% of White students. Even with a slightly higher number of minority students admitting they had recently smoked marijuana, it’s nowhere near enough of a difference to justify notable discrepancy in arrests.

If you take a step back and examine the issue from the national level, the problem doesn’t disappear. The majority of juvenile marijuana arrests took place in ten counties in Colorado, with each respective one tallying over 100 arrests in 2014. The rest of the counties in the state (roughly 50) were almost all under 25 marijuana arrests each in the same time frame.

The study drilled the data down to which schools and counties were arresting adolescents at the highest rates, finding that “the drug suspension rates are lowest in schools with a smaller proportion of minorities … Schools with the highest proportion of minorities have a drug suspension rate 110% higher than schools with the lowest proportion of minorities.” For example, Pueblo County had the highest percentage of students admit to using marijuana (32.1%) but only saw five juvenile arrests in 2014. When you compare that to Arapahoe County, which had a far lower percentage of students admit marijuana use (20.6%), the results are fascinating. Arapahoe County, with triple the African-American population of Pueblo County, arrested nearly 400 students for marijuana-related offenses in 2014.

BuzzFeed News reached Tustin Amole, the Director of Communications for Cherry Creek School in Arapahoe County, for comment on the matter and she said, “We don’t really have zero tolerance policies because there are so many variations and circumstances. You have to take them all into account. All I can say is while it may seem disproportionate, those are the students we’re catching with the drugs.”

Courtesy of policecararchives.org

Courtesy of policecararchives.org

This problem is not unique to Colorado. Massachusetts and Washington state have both either decriminalized or legalized to similar results– a decline in total marijuana-related arrests with an increase in minority communities. It’s a grave concern that while our country has made immense progress in the fight to end marijuana prohibition, we continue to discriminate and use law enforcement as a vehicle for embedded racism. If these results are what comes from taking things “case by case,” then there needs to be a different approach and far more oversight on school resource officers and administrators in positions of power to eliminate these disparities altogether.

Header Image Courtesy of Bogdan Vija

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