California was the first state to legalize medical marijuana, but police have arrested almost half a million people for marijuana-related offenses over the last 10 years, a recent study finds. The majority of those being arrested are minorities, despite usage rates among white and black communities being relatively equal.

According to the Drug Policy Alliance, 465,873 Californians were arrested between 2006 and 2015 for marijuana misdemeanors and felonies. Despite marijuana law reform, black and Latino Californians are arrested for marijuana offenses at disproportionately high rates, even as the rate of arrests overall has dropped over the period. The study also found that the majority of people arrested for marijuana misdemeanors are under 18 years old.

The study highlights the pressures facing minority communities, even as legalization widens. It also points to potential headwinds facing entrepreneurs looking to engage in the legal marijuana trade in minority communities.

Taking a Toll

Overall, the study found that black people in California are more than twice as likely as white people to be arrested for marijuana misdemeanors and almost five times more likely to be arrested for marijuana felonies. Latinos are 45 percent more likely than white people to get arrested for a misdemeanor and 26 percent more likely for a felony. As for youth arrests, the majority of the people facing charges for marijuana misdemeanors are under 18 years old. (The reason, the study hypothesized, is possession of marijuana for personal use on school grounds is still a misdemeanor, while the same offense off school grounds is similar to getting a parking ticket.)

Since 1971, when then President Richard Nixon launched his offensive against drugs and drug abuse, minorities have been two to 10 times more likely to get arrested and serve long prison sentences than white people for the same offense. The racial disparities during the war on drugs has carried over to the legal industry, say policy experts.

"The disparities between white communities and communities of color have sustained into reform," says John Hudak, senior fellow at the Brookings Institute. "The manner in which the law is enforced, including reform, has disproportionately hurt people of color."

Still, Hudak points out that while the disparity between different groups remains, overall arrest rates across the country are in decline; 25 states have some kind of legal marijuana on the books. That means fewer whites and people of color are being arrested for drug-related crimes.

Indeed, between 2006 and 2015, the number of marijuana misdemeanors dropped by 86 percent in California, according to the Drug Policy Alliance. In 2011, lawmakers reduced possession of marijuana for personal use from a misdemeanor to an infraction, which is similar to a parking ticket, causing those types of arrests to plummet. Felony arrests were "relatively stable" between 2006 and 2014 with an annual average of 14,000 felony marijuana arrests. But in 2015, those types of arrests decreased by a third.

Racial disparity in marijuana-related arrest rates is not just a problem in California.

A March study conducted in Colorado between 2012 and 2014, found that after the state voted to legalize marijuana in 2012, white juvenile marijuana arrests dropped by 8 percent. By contrast, black and Latino juvenile arrests shot up by 58 percent and 29 percent, respectively, over the period.

Long-Run Costs

This disconnect directly impacts the future of minority ownership within the industry.

Corey Barnette is the owner of medical marijuana cultivation center District Growers in Washington, D.C. He says that minorities are having a harder time entering the legal marijuana trade thanks to provisions built into many state marijuana programs, which ban drug felons from entering the industry.

As minorities are more likely to have a felony conviction compared to white people, these policies have created an industry that is overwhelmingly white, he says. 

"Regulations--like banning drug felons now that it is legal--effectively cuts minority ownership at the start of a brand new industry," says Barnette, who is one of two minority entrepreneurs who owns a marijuana business license in D.C. He adds that the impact of these policies will readily show up in wealth and jobs from the industry in minority communities.

"It also perpetuates the conspiracy theory that is prevalent in communities of color--that the system is literally designed to exclude them," says Barnette. "This leads to a sense of hopelessness, despair and mistrust."

Hudak says these feelings are, in part, a product of prohibition, as laws were not enforced equally among race groups and age groups. That's sustained through reform.

These problems don't get repaired overnight, Hudak adds. "You won't fix 80 years of history with a couple of ballot initiatives in the American West."

Published on: Aug 24, 2016