Even Where Weed Is Legal, Cops Still Mostly Arrest Black and Brown People

In Washington, D.C., alone, where weed is mostly legal, nearly 90 percent of the people arrested for cannabis-related crimes in 2020 were Black.
Katie Way
Brooklyn, US
Under arrest, a man's hands with clenched fists are handcuffed behind him.
Photo by Jub Rubjob via Getty Images

We elected the only Democratic presidential candidate who didn’t support wholesale, federal cannabis legalization (and won’t let his staffers light up, either), but it still feels like we’re living in a favorable climate for recreational drugs—weed especially. After all, five new states voted in favor of legalizing it in some capacity in 2020, with a sixth, New York, on the horizon in 2021. We’re even living in some kind of recreational drug renaissance, with full decriminalization of all “illicit” drugs underway in Oregon


But even as weed becomes more legal, cops are still using it as an excuse to arrest people of color—see New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s reported refusal to eliminate a policy that allows cops to approach and search people if they smell the odor of cannabis. In New York City, where medical marijuana is legal and possession of less than 2 ounces is decriminalized, 94 percent of the people arrested on cannabis charges in 2020 were people of color, according to a report from AMNY. The vast majority of those arrestees (just under 92 percent) were Black or Latinx. According to a November report from L.A. Taco, 75 percent of the people the LAPD arrested for cannabis-related offenses in 2020 were Black or Latinx, and the number of Black people arrested for pot-related reasons jumped 12 percent from 2019. And per a Washington Post story from September 2020, “just under 90 percent” of the people arrested for cannabis-related crimes in Washington, D.C., in 2020 were Black. 

Arrest rates in the latter two cities are especially glaring, given the fact that cannabis is recreationally legal in both California and Washington, D.C. So how is it possible that Black and brown people could still be getting arrested for cannabis-related offenses? Simple: regulations about who is allowed to sell and use cannabis, plus where and how. D.C. has a convoluted system for dispensing weed—it’s still technically illegal to sell recreationally and must be given as a “free gift” alongside, say, a $45 baseball hat. Los Angeles in particular has struggled with dispensary licensing, meaning many stores that sell weed through a veneer of legality are technically breaking the law.

In 2019, the American Civil Liberties Union released a report titled “A Tale of Two Countries: Racially Targeted Arrests in the Era of Marijuana Reform” that found that racial disparities in arrest rates actually worsened in 31 states since 2010 and Black people are still 3.6 times as likely as white people to be arrested on cannabis charges. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like 2020 was any less on-trend.

Follow Katie Way on Twitter.