Are Increased Cannabis Arrests a Sign That Legalization Doesn’t Work?

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One of the many reasons that people who support social justice want to move toward legal cannabis policies is because people of color have disproportionately born the burden of prohibition throughout the War on Drugs. In different states and cities, rates vary, but in general, individuals of Hispanic or African-American backgrounds are several times more likely to face possession charges related to cannabis when compared with their white counterparts.

The racial disparity in arrest rates is so extreme that many people have dubbed the War on Drugs the New Jim Crow. Pushing for legalization ideally would result in the reduced use of law enforcement for cannabis prohibition and policing, as well as forgiveness and expungement for those with previous non-violent cannabis offenses on their records.

Unfortunately, statistics indicate that the opposite may be happening in some cases. Cannabis arrest rates were up in 2017 over 2016, despite four more states voting to legalize in 2016. There are several reasons for this disappointing but unsurprising outcome.

The first is obviously that law enforcement, after losing out on all of those lucrative cannabis busts, want to do whatever they can to increase the amount of money they bring in. Civil asset forfeiture laws may still apply to people prosecuted with cannabis crimes under legalization laws. Minor deviations from State statutes can Empower law enforcement’s to arrest and prosecute individuals, while also seizing their assets for sale. In other words, simply legalizing cannabis does not remove the federal financial incentives to policing for profit and prioritizing cannabis busts.

The second reason is the rising social acceptance of cannabis and cannabis users. People feel like there is less stigma about cannabis, so they feel more comfortable using and possessing it, which can result in criminal charges in non-legal states or in states with legalization laws if the person does not strictly comply with the law.

There is also the innately racist nature of drug prohibition enforcement to consider. Unsurprisingly, people of color continue to bear the burden of law enforcement attempts to crack down on cannabis even in legal states. This racism is so overt that organizations like Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), run by known troll and science denier, Kevin Sabet, has attempted to convince African-American voters in Michigan’s Motor City, Detroit, that legalization, not the War on Drugs, is the new Jim Crow.

This organization, of course, could do far more harm than good for people of color by pushing back against legalization efforts. This most recent strategy is a clear attempt to undermine support for legalization in minority communities as the election looms.

Hopefully, the communities targeted by these underhanded and misleading tactics are smart enough to realize that SAM is pandering to them and is not working in their best interest. They offer no better alternative, and would likely be happy to watch people of color continue to be incarcerated and arrested at high rates for cannabis possession in states with no legalization laws whatsoever.

Focusing intensely on compliance with state laws and police being pedants when it comes to cannabis do not serve the communities they are supposed to protect or uphold the spirit of the law. Unfortunately, until communities push back on law enforcement officers undermining legalization measures, it is likely for the racial disparity in arrests to remain an issue.

Increased arrests rates don’t mean that cannabis legalization isn’t working. They mean that law enforcement is not respecting the nature of the laws passed by the people. This uptick is an inevitable step toward the total dismantling of the War on Drugs in the future.


For previous Ladybud articles about prohibition as the New Jim Crow, click here.