Law enforcement data released by the California Department of Justice reveals that in 2019 the state recorded the lowest number of felony marijuana arrests since 1954, while showing that the racial disparity at play in such arrests continues to grow. 

In the department’s latest “Crime in California” report, law enforcement officials reported that 1,181 arrests for marijuana felonies were made in 2019, down 27% from 1,617 in 2018, the first year of legal recreational marijuana sales in the state. The data is not broken down by offense but includes such activities as unlicensed cannabis sales or cultivation and marijuana sales to minors.

While the total number of marijuana arrests declined last year, “the harassment went up,” said Donnie Anderson, the co-founder of the cannabis trade group California Minority Alliance.

In an analysis of the data, the California chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (Cal NORML) said that the 2019 number of felony marijuana arrests is the lowest total since 1954. A total of 3,769 misdemeanor marijuana arrests were also made last year, down slightly from the 3,835 arrests recorded in 2018.

The report also revealed that the racial disparity prevalent in the enforcement of the nation’s drug laws continues in California despite legalization. According to demographic information included with the arrest data, Hispanic people made up 42% of the felony marijuana arrests in the state last year, while Black people accounted for 22%. White people made up 21% of those arrested, while other groups accounted for 15% of arrests.

Misdemeanor marijuana arrests showed even greater racial disparities. Hispanic people made up 49.6% of the arrests and Black people accounted for 13.5%, while white defendants tallied only 22.2% of those arrested.

People Of Color Face Higher Rates Of Arrest

When the data was weighted for California’s population and compared to previous years, Cal NORML discovered that Black people were 4.47 times more likely to be arrested for a marijuana crime than whites, up from 4.05 times in 2018. Latinx people were 2.02 more likely to be arrested than whites in 2019, compared to the figure of 1.66 times more likely that was recorded the previous year. In its analysis, Cal NORML used 2018 data which showed that California’s population was 39.3% Hispanic, 36.6% white non-Hispanic, and 5.8% Black.

Ellen Komp, the deputy director for Cal NORML, said that the racial disparities found in the marijuana felony arrest data are indicative of the difficulty that Black people, Hispanic people, and other racial minorities have in entering the state’s legal cannabis market due to high licensing and regulatory fees and other costs.

The percentage of both Black and Hispanic people arrested for marijuana offenses “is troubling, especially now that we’ve legalized it,” Komp said. “It’s legal if you have the venture capital to open up on Main Street.”

A study by the American Civil Liberties Union released earlier this year showed that racial disparities in the enforcement of marijuana laws exist not only in California but in all 50 states. Nationwide, Black people are 3.6 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than white people, despite similar rates of usage.

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