A Look in to How People of Color are Disproportionately Arrested for Cannabis Use Post-Legalization

Written by BlackbirdGo October 23, 2018
The History

While the legalization of recreational cannabis and its popularity are on the rise, the anticipated decline in cannabis-related arrests of Black and Brown folks has yet to be seen.

California became the first state to legalize the use of cannabis medicinally in 1996. Ten years later, California legalized the use of recreational cannabis; however, recreational shops would not be seen until January 1st, 2018. Over ten months later, buying an 8th of weed at the rec shop should feel as normal and easy as heading to the grocery store to get a six pack of beer. For many White folks, the legalization of cannabis for recreational use has made smoking and possessing weed a practice that produces no second thoughts. The same reality does not exist for people of color, especially Black and Latinx people.

California law states that a person 21 or older can have about an ounce of cannabis on their person, including in a vehicle, as long as it is stored in an unopened container or in the trunk. Knowing that these laws exist should ensure our safety as long as we abide by them; however, as a person of color, the issue can arise from having any interaction with the police at all. Because cannabis has such a potent odor, it can open up the door for police to search a person or their vehicle based on the “suspicion” that they possess an illegal amount of weed.

New Frontier Data reports show 41.6% of all drug-related arrests between 1997 and 2016 involved cannabis. The Office of the Attorney General produced data that shows the overall percentage of felony arrests regarding marijuana offenses in California decreased from 2016 to 2017. In 2016, 20.4% of all felony arrests were due to cannabis-related offenses. In 2017, the aforementioned percentage dropped to 7%. Although the legalization of recreational cannabis use led to a decrease in arrests as a whole, for individual groups in California, such as Black and Latinx people, the arrest rates have actually gone up. In 2016, Latinx people made up 38.6% of the felony arrests for cannabis offenses. Black people comprised twenty percent of those facing felony arrests for cannabis offenses, compared to white people who accounted for 26.1%. By 2017, white people only made up 23.7% of those who were arrested for felonies regarding cannabis offenses; however, the percentage for Latinx people arrested for cannabis offenses rose to 39.9% and to 21% for Black folks. It is also important to note that Black people constitute only about 6% of the California population; making these high percentages for Black people being incarcerated troubling to say the least.

In this political climate, it is especially important that we, as consumers, know the laws regarding cannabis use. In California, The Adult Use of Marijuana Act, or Prop 64, made it possible for adults 21 years and older to purchase, possess, and intake 28.5 grams of cannabis. An adult in possession of more than the allotted amount may face up to six months in county jail or fines of $500. It is still illegal to smoke weed in public, which is similar to laws regarding open containers or public intoxication. It is also still illegal to operate a vehicle when under the influence of cannabis and can be charged as a DUI. Yes, that includes hot boxing even when it’s parked! If the keys are in the ignition and you are under the influence, whether the car is fully on or not, it is up to the police officer’s discretion to treat it as a DUI.

The original proposition legalizing recreational use of cannabis in California caused many to rejoice, while those dealing with prior convictions based on cannabis related offenses were left wondering what this would mean for them and their records. Fortunately, a new bill in California, approved by Governor Jerry Brown on September 30th, 2018, mandates:

“On or before July 1, 2019, the Department of Justice shall review the records in the state summary criminal history information database and shall identify past convictions that are potentially eligible for recall or dismissal of sentence, dismissal and sealing, or redesignation pursuant to Section 11361.8. The department shall notify the prosecution of all cases in their jurisdiction that are eligible for recall or dismissal of sentence, dismissal and sealing, or redesignation.”

Essentially, the bill states that past convictions for possessing or consuming less than the legal amount now are to be identified and could be dismissed, sealed, or redesignated. This also means that those who have served a sentence for a cannabis-related offense for what is now a legal activity have the right to petition to have said offenses redesignated, leading to a complete dismissal of the conviction from their record. This would be the ideal outcome for all of those who have been victimized by the system for engaging in the consumption or possession of cannabis. In the meantime, as the process is slow moving, people can take it upon themselves to get their cannabis-related convictions in California reversed. However the steps are tedious and may not apply to everyone’s situation.

Lastly, those of us who are privileged enough to have never had any serious run-ins with the law regarding cannabis should be doing all we can for those who are caught in the claws of an unforgiving system. Here is a link to a GoFundMe page for Randolph R. Carr Jr., a Black man who has been in prison for almost nine years for conspiracy to distribute cannabis. Read about his story in his own words and the words of his family to learn how you can help.