Persistent Racial Differences Under Softening Marijuana Enforcement

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 than 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,

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

18 thoughts on “Persistent Racial Differences Under Softening Marijuana Enforcement”

  1. So is it your interpretation that whites are benefiting because it’s states with disproportionately low levels of African American population that have decriminalized marijuana?

    I read the NYT article on this, which has the state by state numbers showing that the disproportionate arrest of African Americans was found in nearly EVERY county and state in the country in which arrests are made, no matter what the distribution of black and white population. So even in Minnesota with a very low percentage of African Americans, African Americans are still much more likely to be arrested for possession of marijuana than whites. (More whites are no doubt still arrested as an absolute number, but any given white person is less likely to be arrested.) Indeed, Minnesota stood out in this regard, where blacks are 5X more likely to be arrested than whites.

    “Researchers said the growing racial disparities in marijuana arrests were especially striking because they were so consistent even across counties with large or small minority populations.”

    Am I missing something?

    1. Barbara wrote: Am I missing something?

      No, I think you are making a good point. The story, my post and this discussion range over different data points, and in that sense can be confusing (or at least it was at me at times when we were working on the data). The story focuses mostly on a disparity, and a disparity can change for multiple reasons: One group drops and the other doesn’t, one group goes up and the other doesn’t, both go up or both go down but at different rates, one goes up and one goes down.

      In my post I was asking about why the African-American rate in the U.S. (rather than the disparity) had not gone down. To explain that I suggest that the spread of softening in mainly white versus black areas could be the cause, as black arrest numbers have been less affected as a result. But even if Black numbers drop, there could still be a disparity, as you point out in your comment.

  2. What are the attitudes of Latinos? General social conservatism pushes in one direction, the signals from Latin America (Mexico, Uruguay) in the other.

    1. According to a poll by The Pew Center, support for legalizing MJ has picked up in the last three years. In 2010, 41% of adults were in favor. In 2013, it was 52% of all respondents, with not much difference by race — 52% of Whites, 56% of Blacks, and 51% of Hispanics.

      More polling data there to look at. As always, the Pew Center does a great job in presenting their data clearly.

  3. First off, I think legalization or something like Mark’s model is the only way to reduce the racial inequities in arrests, but I’m not at all convinced by arguments presented that enforcement is intentionally racist.

    High crime areas need more enforcement and inhabitants *demand* it. Not all drug crimes are equivalently damaging to social order: open air dealing is worse than discrete sales conducted in private. Some neighborhoods offer much more privacy than others. More dense urban neighborhoods also have a higher percentage of land where dealing would be less tolerated.

    Point is studies need to control for these factors before laying claims of racism in enforcement. What’s unquestionable is that the *outcome* of the system as is is intolerable.

    1. If you read the article in the NYT you will see the suggestion that some of the arrest activity is concentrated in “high density” neighborhoods as a result of federal law enforcement incentives that reward a certain level of “activity” without regard to, say, the nature or character of the crime. Indeed, it suggests that marijuana arrests have increased while prosecution of other crimes has either stayed flat or decreased, which means that those neightborhoods are not being made safer. I understand the tactic of arresting for low level easily prosecuted crimes as a way of making police presence known and thus, perhaps, having a salutary effect on other crimes, but I doubt if this is intentional either.

      I don’t want to express a firm opinion on this, but I would have to disagree that this isn’t “intentionally racist” on the basis that this kind of “intentional targeting” in order to maximize law enforcement points would not likely be tolerated if it were targeted at (for instance) night clubs frequented by affluent white people.

    2. Results matter.

      Even if it’s no one’s specific intent, it’s clear that enforcement of these laws is inherently racially biased. Anyone who struggled through Statistics 101 can understand that the chances of such skewed results — over and over and across virtually every jurisdiction — are not something that, whoops, just occurs by chance, over and over. The odds against that being a “natural” result and not systemic bias…your odds are such you’d be better off buying a Powerball ticket and going ahead and making a downpayment on that personal island before the numbers are even pulled.

      What matters is what are we going to do about. No one can defend this sort of injustice with a straight face. Even if you’re such a bonehead at this point that you think these laws somehow “work” you can’t possibly defend outcomes like these. And it’s not a matter of tweaking the laws a little, as New York’s experience with the difference between decriminalized pot and weed in plain sight is demonstrating. Just like slavery itself, the institution is corrupt. There is no possibility of reforming it. We simply need to take this choice out of the hands of a justice system that has proven repeatedly and universally incapable of applying such laws equitably.

      1. I grew up in a family of NY cops. Their overt racism colored every family meal and casual conversation. They did not think it their duty to protect people of color, blacks, Puerto Ricans or Asians from violent attacks. The assertion that “Puerto Rican broads can’t be raped” still sticks in my craw. Granted, this transpired many years ago, but all evidence is that this pernicious culture has not changed a great deal, but in my conspiratorial mode I see the Southern Strategy and the War on Drugs as being cut from the same cloth. Racism is the ideological base of the Republican Party, the party of “us” vs ” them”. The money boys who lead them around by the nose laugh all the way to their Cayman accounts.

        1. I grew up with a family history similar to yours and, I assure you, the “overt” racism that existed then continues unabated to this day. The interesting, and disturbing, thing is that, other than their racism, they are decent and normal in all other ways. I know that sounds like the “other than that, Mrs. Lincoln………” punch line, but, those who have experienced what I’m saying know what I mean.

          I think there are different mutations regarding racism, and, one size does Not fit all. While the cops I’m familiar with have no problem using the “N” word and refer to minorities with a collective, “they, or them” they would never participate in any overt acts of prejudice. In other words, the kinds of violent, and targeted acts we’ve all heard about and associate with groups like the KKK. These cops would, and do, risk their lives protecting minorities from crimes, and, would intervene on a minority’s behalf in a race induced altercation.

          I’m sure psychiatrists & psychologists have terms for this condition, and, I welcome any comments that can add something of value to what I’m trying to describe here. These are not bad people, except for………that. It’s almost like if you’re born in Brooklyn, you’re a Dodger fan, in the Bronx, a Yankee fan. And, if you asked them if they were prejudiced they would answer with an emphatic, NO, and probably pass a polygraph doing it.

          1. I’m sure psychiatrists and psychologists have terms for this condition

            Speaking as one of those, the term I would use is “human”. They had flaws, virtues and contradictions in their lives…have you ever met anyone who did not?

  4. As has been stated above, the drug laws at their inception in the early 20th Century were intended to target certain groups-blacks in much of the county, Mexicans in California (which had very few blacks at the time). They were sold with lurid claims that the lower racial groups were getting hopped up on drugs, playing jazz and threatening white women.

  5. ” .. the long discredited association of crime and marijuana ..”
    They are inevitably associated because marijuana is illegal and traders and consumers are committing crimes, which would disappear if pot were legalized. So I think you mean extrinsic crime. What you are attacking is the direction of causation: marijuana use causes extrinsic crime (robbery, murder, DUI, &c.). This is no doubt false for consumers apart from driving offences, but true for traders, because their business is illegal and contracts can only be enforced by violence. The cause of these crimes is marijuana plus prohibition.

    1. “The cause of these crimes is marijuana plus prohibition.”

      Marijuana doesn’t cause prohibition — or crime, people do.

      To state it otherwise is to fall into the fundamental illogic of the “drug war.” The powers-that-be want everyone to blame drugs for bad things happening. “Drugs make people do evil!” Bullhockey. Like with alcohol, I’ve never seen anyone do something on drugs that wasn’t already there to begin with.

      But giving people who lack self-control something other than themselves to cast blame on helps no one, although it sounds good in court. “Your honor, I’m not that way, The drugs made me do it.” Bullhockey.

      Of course the entire premise of “drug war” law enforcement is to have accountability for personal behavior. How the heck do you get that if you’ve set up a system where people get the easy out of blaming drugs for their rash judgements?

      In fact, most people who use illegal drugs commit no other crime. Most people who use drugs have a job, support their family, and are otherwise upstanding citizens. Most people who use drugs don’t blame drugs for their personal failings, they know it’s them. And most people who use drugs use marijuana and there are no bad consequences except getting caught up in the legal system. The system does no one any good, including even for its self-stated goals and principles, when it hands the big juicy cop-out of “It was the drugs!” to the small minority of marijuana users, just like a small minority in virtually any demographic group, who do exhibit criminal tendencies.

      So I argue that it’s time we stop blaming drugs for bad things and instead go back to blaming people and their bad behavior for what caused it — their own self. That way we can concentrate society’s resources on those who need it and quit wasting them on the majority minding their own business.

      1. Just my two cents, Mike, but I think he was mostly agreeing with you, he was just pointing out the need to be a tiny bit more precise with the language.

        1. NCG,
          Yes, I agree. Precision helps. I just have a fundamental problem with bowing down and saying “I’m a criminal…” because of marijuana. It may be precisely, technically true — at the moment — but I reject such labeling as buying into what should by all rights be a historical anachronism, except for the propensity of many of my fellow Americans to elect far less precise politicians to bamboozle them.

          War is over.

          That’s my view. If we start treating it as a dead letter at every opportunity, it will only accelerate the day when it actually is a dead letter.

          That said, I’m an entirely realistic activist who is cautious, but takes every chance to be precise about my non-conformity with oppression. Thus my rejection of language intended to make us conform, comply or complicit in the abuses against us.

          And I often prefer to do so by turning the oppressor’s language and own principles against them. That is why I treated this as a issue where that universal solvent of the conservative, “personal responsibility,” could be applied. None of these police, jurisdictions or courts are being compelled to take responsibility for their actions. They’re fighting a war that violates their own fundamental principles. They’re expecting people to evade responsibility and blame a plant for their troubles, maybe instead of a corrupt legal system. And it’s a total FAIL and waste of the taxpayers dollar. Why should any conservative support it? A lot of it is closeted — sometimes not so closeted — racism, the exercise of which seems to be higher priority than their principles these days.

          Prohibition is their fault, not mine or anyone else who ever touched a joint. It’s failure is rooted in their own hypocrisy.

          As for the violent enforcement of illegal contracts, I think this is more imaginative TV writing than real life in most cases. People who live outside the law must be honest. That’s the code folks I know live by. It’s always worked for me. It would have to be a whole lot of marijuana before there’s a “good reason” (not that there ever is) to hurt someone over it. But people do stupid things for no good reason all the time. Take that Iraq War…or “drug war,” for instance…please! Obviously, YMMV, but my experience is that people who grow and sell marijuana don’t want trouble under the current circumstances and go out of their way to avoid it. Darwin takes care of those who go looking for trouble is what folks tend to think. Wiser to be a good upstanding citizen except for your one “character flaw.”

          Again, crime is somewhat in the eye of the beholder here. but the associations between crime and reefer are far more specious than generally represented. And in my estimation, where they exist they are entirely the result of bad law, not bad dope. People who commit _real_ crimes already face consequences. Let’s quit pretending that handing out random consequences to folks who enjoy marijuana has ANY effect on that. We’re just encouraging those who commit them to evade responsibility by encouraging them to blame a harmless substance. That’s counterproductive no matter what side of this issue someone is on. It’s the fatal logical flaw in a crumbling system. I intend to pick at it every chance I get and my apologies if my precision in language bumps up against a fellow traveler. It’s not my intent to run them down.

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