Recent data published in Nature: Human Behavior shows that although police are now less likely to conduct searches for cannabis at a traffic stop now that cannabis is legalized in several states, people of color are still the ones being targeted and stopped. 

The research was conducted by folks affiliated with Stanford University and New York University, and the data comes primarily from Colorado and Washington following legalization laws. 

The team reported, “After the legalization of marijuana, the number of searches fell substantially” in both states as compared to rates in 12 control states (places where cannabis is not legalized). In addition, “the proportion of stops that resulted in either a drug-related infraction or misdemeanor fell substantially in both states after marijuana was legalized.”

However, in spite of this, the data also shows that African Americans and Hispanic people are subject to vehicle searches more often than their white peers. Throughout the country, their vehicles are searched about twice as often as those belonging to white people. 

“We found that white drivers faced consistently higher search thresholds than minority drivers, both before and after marijuana legalization,” they wrote. “The data thus suggest that, although overall search rates dropped in Washington and Colorado, black and Hispanic drivers still faced discrimination in search decisions.”

The authors concluded, “We find that legalization reduced both search rates and misdemeanor rates for drug offenses for white, black, and Hispanic drivers–though a gap in search thresholds persists.”

In response to the study, NORML’s Political Director Justin Strekal said, “While we are pleased to see the total number of traffic stop-related searches decline in legal cannabis states, we must not overlook the reality that people of color continue to be policed in a racially disparate manner. While legalization is one tool that appears to lessen some of these disparities, it is not a panacea to solve the structural problems of systemic racism that persist in America.”

It’s clear that it’s time to take a hard look at the racial bias behind search and seizure processes, even in light of cannabis legalization.

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