In Two US Cities, Cannabis Decriminalization and Legalization Reduce—but Do Not Eliminate—Racial Disparities in Cannabis-associated Arrests

“War on drugs” policies in the US have been associated with aggressive enforcement in minority communities and inequitable drug-related arrests. One of the rationales for the decriminalization and legalization of cannabis is to reduce these disparities and the harms they cause to minority communities. This study looked at the impact of cannabis decriminalization in Washington, DC and legalization in Los Angeles, California on cannabis-associated arrests and disparities between White and Black individuals.

  • In Washington, DC, prior to cannabis decriminalization, there were 84 cannabis-associated arrests per 100,000 Black people compared with 5 per 100,000 White people, an absolute difference of 80 and a Black/White ratio of 18.
    • After decriminalization, there were 19 arrests per 100,000 Black people compared with 2 per 100,000 White people, an absolute difference of 18 and a Black/White ratio of 12.
  • In Los Angeles, prior to cannabis legalization, there were 56 cannabis-associated arrests per 100,000 Black people compared with 7 per 100,000 White people, an absolute difference of 50 and a Black/White ratio of 8.
    • After legalization, there were 20 arrests per 100,000 Black people compared with 3 per 100,000 White people, an absolute difference of 17 and a Black/White ratio of 7.
  • After decriminalization and legalization, there was an increase in arrests for public consumption in both cities, with a Black/White ratio of 9 in Washington, DC and 7 in Los Angeles.

Comments: This study shows that decriminalization and legalization of cannabis reduced, but did not eliminate, disparities in cannabis-associated arrests in two US cities. Overall, the impact of these changes is positive, but the structural issues that lead to these disparities remain.

Darius A. Rastegar, MD

Reference: Joshi S, Doonan SM, Pamplin JR 2nd. A tale of two cities: racialized arrests following decriminalization and recreational legalization of cannabis. Drug Alcohol Depend. 2023;249:109911.

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