Racial disparities persist in marijuana arrests 

click to enlarge Hype over profit and revenue in post-A64 Colorado distracts from persistent injustice. - ATOMAZUL / SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
  • Atomazul / Shutterstock.com
  • Hype over profit and revenue in post-A64 Colorado distracts from persistent injustice.

The Colorado Department of Public Safety dropped a hefty 143-page report last week that paints a partial picture of the first few years of marijuana legalization.

If you let the media sift through it all for you, you'll encounter plenty of headlines marveling that Colorado youth are not, suddenly, marijuana addicts or that more people now call poison control after snarfing the whole brownie, or that, yes, we're making a ton of money off weed.

But one data point isn't getting much headline play: Racial disparities in the enforcement of Colorado's new drug laws are alive and well.

The report shows total marijuana arrests (most of which are for public consumption) did drop, from 12,894 in 2012 (the year Amendment 64 passed) to 7,004 in 2014 (one year into legalization.)

But the reprieve wasn't felt evenly: The number of marijuana arrests decreased by 51 percent for whites, 33 percent for Hispanics and 25 percent for African-Americans.

The marijuana arrest rate for African-Americans (348 per 100,000) was almost triple that of whites (123 per 100,000) in 2014. And since 2012, marijuana arrests among white kids decreased by 8 percent, but increased among Hispanic kids by 29 percent and among black kids by 58 percent. Four out of 5 arrestees are male.

So, while fewer people are criminalized for smoking a plant in post-legalization Colorado, the fact remains: A black man is still more likely to get booked for it than a white man.

"The originators of the amendment came from a very social-justice-oriented perspective," says attorney Brian Vicente, a name familiar to those who have followed the legalization movement. He was part of the small group of advocates who worked for years to draft and then campaign for Amendment 64. His Denver-based firm is now one of — if not the — go-to repositories of marijuana legal expertise.

"All of the economic development around [the marijuana industry] was almost secondary for us," he says of the report. "But, to be totally candid, when we were messaging, we figured voters didn't care as much about the racial issues compared to the economic issues. That's why most of the arguments centered around revenues and costs."

As someone who represents plenty of businesses in the industry, Vicente is understandably excited about the nearly billion dollars in sales they generated last year. And he is encouraged that marijuana tax revenue is being used to fund state reports like this one. But Vicente is unequivocal: "The stats related to racially disparate arrest numbers are alarming and shameful.

"It begs very serious questions about whether police are being racist in their approach to this issue."

Erie Police Chief Marc Vasquez cautions against jumping to conclusions. "Look, there is no blanket explanation," he says. Vasquez oversees the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police's marijuana committee and prior to that did a stint at the state Marijuana Enforcement Division, making him pretty familiar with policing in post-legalization Colorado.

"Often you'll see more crime, disorder issues in poorer areas," says Vasquez. "So that could be one reason that residents of minority communities are interacting with police more."

Vasquez doesn't deny that bias exists. "Keep in mind all humans have certain biases or stereotypes. And police come from the human race," he says. "But what's important is making sure we don't allow that to influence doing our jobs."

During the last legislative session, state lawmakers passed a bill that mandates all police officers complete a curriculum of anti-bias, community policing and de-escalation courses.

Some in the law enforcement community are wary of top-down mandates, but now that the measure — and several others meant to address racial profiling — have been signed into law, agencies will have to comply.

"Our profession has really done a good job over the years," Vasquez insists. "But there will always be controversies that occur. That's just the nature of the business. How to treat people with dignity and respect is an ongoing discussion."

Professor Jon Gettman, who teaches criminal justice at Shenandoah University in Virginia, is a numbers guy. He helped create reports on marijuana arrests for the Drug Policy Alliance, ACLU and NAACP, so knows these patterns quite well.

"It's easy to take a cheap shot or an overly simplistic view about it. But in many respects, it's a black box," he says. "We don't know the actual workings but we do know the outcomes."

For starters, without data on police stops, it's impossible to draw a hard, causal line.

"Absent information technology, the idea of police filing a report for every stop they make is cumbersome and impractical. But now it's entirely feasible to collect that kind of data," he says, adding, "And I say the more the better."

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