'Racial Injustice' Lurks in California Pot Enforcement, Study Finds


Personal pot possession in California was reduced from an arrest to an infraction in 2010, but systemic racism around pot enforcement continues, a new study finds.

  • EBE file photo
The American Civil Liberties Union of California, in conjunction with the Drug Policy Alliance, published a groundbreaking, heavily reported piece of research Monday that concludes that the Black community in California faces ticketing for pot at a rate four times as high as whites. Latinos have about double the rate of pot tickets as whites.

Titled “Marijuana Enforcement Disparities in California: A Racial Injustice”, the ACLU-DPA report is the culmination of more than a year’s work by a group of four Stanford law school students.

California arrests for pot have dropped 86 percent from highs of nearly 100,000 to about 20,000 in 2014. What remains unknown is how many pot tickets are being written and to whom.

The research group had to threaten to sue cities and counties to divulge pot infraction statistics — which are poorly tracked, and often hand-written, with no electronic records in existence.

An analysis of infraction data from Los Angeles and Fresno found disparities in Black and Latino citations compared to whites. Researchers also found a form of predatory policing where police placed the highest burden of tickets on the backs of young men and boys, particularly ones of color.

“Racial disparities in marijuana enforcement are widespread and longstanding. Los Angeles and Fresno are very different places; yet they reveal similar disparities. It’s likely that young black and Latino Californians experience these disparities statewide,” stated Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, Criminal Justice and Drug Policy director for the ACLU of California. “A $100 citation can easily become several times that, after all the fees are added. This presents a significant burden for young people and low-income families.”

“It is disappointing to see that even at the level of infractions, California law enforcement are incapable of applying the law equally across racial lines,” stated Alice Huffman, president of the CA-Hawaii NAACP. “I am hopeful that full legalization as proposed in the Adult Use of Marijuana Act will drastically reduce the numbers of young people of color being funneled into the criminal justice system for minor drug offenses.”

With infraction data hidden from officials themselves, police cannot speak accurately on levels of pot enforcement or allegations of racial bias, said Amanda Reiman, Marijuana Policy Manager for the Drug Policy Alliance.

Law enforcement assumptions based on personal experience don't often match the statistics.

For example, Oakland’s pot crime is concentrated in just two police beats, she said. “If you’re a cop covering Montclair in Oakland, yeah, there are no marijuana arrests.’”

She said weed crime statistics are caught in a “weird area” where they are underreported compared to the scale of pot activity. Pot crime is measured more like crack cocaine crime, which is rare, instead of alcohol-related crime, which is very common.

“We have this weird situation with cannabis where we have a great deal of use but we have no one with reporting systems, measuring outcomes.”

Now, millions of dollars in legal pot taxes have begun paying for some of the first statistical reporting on cannabis crime — as in Colorado and Washington.

California’s continued targeting of blacks even as pot laws changed mirrors new findings from Colorado, where pot cases dropped 86 percent, yet black teens actually got arrested more.

The ACLU’s groundbreaking study will add to calls for more racial equity in legalized cannabis markets. Recently, Oakland earmarked priority pot permits for cannabis offenders and residents of certain police beats.