April 20, or 4/20, is a day when many people across the world celebrate marijuana culture by toking up, jamming out to tunes and filling up on munchies.
But the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is using the unofficial cannabis holiday to draw attention to a serious issue: Despite the growing number of states that are enacting legalization laws, people of color are still much more likely to be arrested for marijuana than white people are—even though consumption rates are virtually identical across races.
In a new report released on Monday, ACLU reveals that while overall arrests are way down in states that have ended prohibition, racial disparities in remaining enforcement persist in those places. Meanwhile, some still-criminalized states are arresting black people for cannabis at almost ten times the rate that whites are busted.
Here are the key findings of the report—“A Tale of Two Countries: Racially Targeted Arrests in the Era of Marijuana Reform”—which is a follow-up to a similar study the organization released in 2013 that drew broad attention to unfair cannabis arrests rates at a time when legalization was just starting to become a major issue in American politics:
Marijuana Arrests Are Still Widespread Across The U.S.
Marijuana arrests nationally are down 18% since 2010, but there has been an uptick since 2015—even though more states are enacting legalization or decriminalization policies.
Cannabis arrests accounted for 43 percent of all drug arrests in 2018, the most recent year the report covers, and an overwhelming majority of those arrests—89.6 percent—were for possession alone.
Extreme Racial Disparities In Marijuana Enforcement Persist
Overall, black people are 3.64 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession, even though usage rates are comparable. The trend toward legalization and decriminalization hasn’t reduced national trends in disparate enforcement—and in some parts of the country, they have worsened.
African Americans are more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in every single state in the country.
“Racial disparities in marijuana possession arrests exist across the country, in every state, in counties large and small, urban and rural, wealthy and poor, and with large and small Black populations,” the report says. “Indeed, in every state and in over 95 percent of counties with more than 30,000 people in which at least 1 percent of the residents are Black, Black people are arrested at higher rates than white people for marijuana possession.”
Marijuana Arrests Decrease After Decriminalization, But Drop More Sharply In Fully Legalized States
Not surprisingly, states that legalized cannabis saw decreases in marijuana possession arrests—though ACLU found that some of these had been experiencing a downward trend even before prohibition was ended.
States with less far-reaching policies that simply decriminalize possession also see reductions in arrests, but not as much as in those places where prohibition is ended altogether. Cannabis possession bust rates are roughly eight times higher in decriminalized states than in ones that have fully legalized, though they are lower than in those where broad criminalization is still the law.
When it comes to arrests for selling marijuana, states with legalization saw an 81.3 percent drop between 2010 and 2018, while decriminalized states experienced a 33.6 percent reduction over that period.
Racial Disparities Persist Even Legalized Or Decriminalized States
Even while overall marijuana arrests are down in legalized and decriminalized states, black people are still much more likely to be busted for cannabis than white people are. “In every state that has legalized or decriminalized marijuana possession, Black people are still more likely to be arrested for possession than white people,” ACLU found.
“Most jurisdictions that have enacted progressive marijuana policy have failed to do so from a foundation of racial justice,” the report warns. “As such, though legalization and decriminalization appear to reduce the overall number of marijuana possession arrests for black and white people alike, such laws have not substantially reduced, let alone eliminated, the significantly larger arrest rates of black people.”
While on average legalized states have lower racial disparities in marijuana possession arrests compared those that have only decriminalized or where prohibition is in full force, Maine and Massachusetts—which both voted to legalize cannabis in 2016—had larger racial disparities in 2018 than they did in 2010.
“The one common finding across every state and the vast majority of counties is that black people are more likely to be arrested for possessing marijuana than white people, regardless of whether possession is illegal, legal, or decriminalized in their state,” the report concludes.
ACLU also reported that shortcomings in police data make it hard to get a full understanding of the unfair impact marijuana enforcement has across racial lines. For example, FBI arrest numbers do not distinguish between Latinos and those of other races, obscuring the particular impact that prohibition has on brown as well as black people.
Along with the report, ACLU launched an online tool that makes it easy for people to see just how discriminatory marijuana enforcement practices are in their own states.
Montana is the worst offender, with black people there being 9.6 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than white people. Kentucky was not far behind with a disparate rate to the tune of 9.4.
In Colorado, the state with the least discriminatory enforcement rate, African Americans are still 1.5 times more likely to be busted for cannabis than white people are.
Zooming in further to the county level, ACLU found that even within states there are vast differences in how cannabis laws are being enforced.
In Franklin County, Massachusetts, a black person is 117 times more likely to be busted for marijuana possession than a white person is.
“The U.S. has waged a failed, devastating, decades-long war on drugs, including marijuana, in specific communities. Rounding up hundreds of thousands of people every year—millions every decade—for marijuana offenses, this racist campaign has caused profound and far-reaching harm on the people arrested, convicted, and/or incarcerated for marijuana offenses,” ACLU said. “Such harm cannot be undone, but as a country we can acknowledge, repair, and rebuild so that our future looks nothing like our prohibitionist past.”
Looking ahead, the organization is recommending that the federal and state governments legalize marijuana, but that they not stop there. In addition to expunging prior convictions and granting clemency to people still incarcerated on cannabis changes, the group is urging that newly legal markets be made equitable and accessible to people from communities that have been most harmed by the war on drugs.
It’s past time that we not just legalize marijuana, but do so in a way that tackles racial disparities head-on.
The MORE Act will do just that.
— ACLU (@ACLU) April 20, 2020
“The question no longer is whether the U.S. should legalize marijuana—it should—or whether marijuana legalization is about racial equity—it is. It is also no longer about whether all levels of government should redirect resources away from prosecution of marijuana and toward public health investments and community collaborations—they should,” the report says.
“Rather, the question is: When states legalize, how can they do so through a racial justice lens to address the panoply of harms that have been selectively aimed at Black and Latinx communities for decades?” it continues.
Although opponents of marijuana legalization have pointed to previous data showing ongoing racial disparities in enforcement post-prohibition as a reason to argue against the policy change, ACLU is very clear that their new report should not be used to push for continued criminalization.
“In short, legalization by itself means fewer black people getting arrested. Conversely, prohibition means more—many, many more—black people getting arrested, jailed, convicted,” Ezekiel Edwards, who authored the report and is the director of the organization’s Criminal Law Reform Project, said in an email. “So it would be wrong to suggest that legalization is a wash regarding alleviating the negative impacts of marijuana criminalization.”
He also cautioned against stopping at simply decriminalizing cannabis possession, a policy that some legalization opponents say they support as an alternative between incarceration and a commercial marijuana market, pointing out that there are “more black people getting arrested in states that decriminalized than those that have legalized.”
That said, he noted that “legalization on its own does not address the racial disparities in marijuana arrests or achieve racial equity more broadly in marijuana reform.”
It is crucial, Edwards argued, for states to “center legalization in racial justice.”
“This means not only including equity-focused legislation led and informed by communities directly harmed by prohibition, but also tethering legalization to changing the way police departments treat communities of color,” he said. “If marijuana is legalized without reducing racial profiling and the unnecessary harassment and surveillance of people because of the color of their skin or the neighborhood they live in, there will be a drop in marijuana arrests but no tangible impact on the racial disparities of those arrests, or on other arrests for other petty offenses regarding which we consistently find the police treating people differently based on race.”
Feds Hire Hazmat Firm For Marijuana Eradication Training
The U.S. Forest Service will spend nearly $50,000 to hire a hazardous materials consulting firm to train employees how to safely remove marijuana grown on public lands under a newly awarded government contract.
The agency says the training is needed to protect employees, some of whom reportedly have been taken to emergency rooms after being exposed to hazardous chemicals while clearing marijuana plants in years past.
“Before 2016 we had numerous number [sic] of our Agents and Officers getting sick in our marijuana cultivation sites on our public lands requiring trips to emergency rooms with possible long term health effects,” says a typo-ridden document filed in support of the contract that was posted last week to the U.S. General Services Administration website. “In 2016 we received our fist [sic] citation from OSHA for not providing our personnel the training and PPE needed to operate in this environment.”
Training of agents with the Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Region will be conducted by NES, a leading hazardous materials consultant and training company that works extensively with law enforcement. In the document, the government says the NES program “is the ONLY training course in the U.S. available that meets our needs, and has met OSHA standards.” The course is estimated to cost taxpayers $44,732, and there will be no bidding process or consideration of competing firms under the single source award.
Going forward, employees will need to pass the hazmat class before they can participate in cannabis-clearing operations.
While marijuana has been grown clandestinely across the continent for generations, large-scale commercial grows hidden on public lands ramped up in the early 2000s, especially in California. Much of the marijuana fed the nation’s illicit market, but some also made its way to medical dispensaries, which were largely unregulated at the time.
Cannabis can be cultivated successfully in most environments without pesticides or chemical fertilizers, but many of the unregulated growers cut corners. They apply dangerous chemicals that pollute nearby waterways and fell entire sections of national forest to clear land.
The other potential contaminants at illegal grow sites appear to be the Forest Service’s chief concern. The document notes that many cultivation plots run by drug trafficking organizations “use hazardous chemicals not allowed for use in the United States.”
The Forest Service itself has come under fire for its handling of the sites. In April 2018, a watchdog report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s inspector general found that the Forest Service “does not always reclaim and rehabilitate marijuana grow sites after plants are eradicated, and FS is unaware of the overall impact these marijuana grow sites pose to the forest ecosystems.”
“As a result,” the watchdog said at the time, “trash and chemicals such as pesticides and fertilizers are still present on these grow sites, thereby putting the public, wildlife, and environment at risk of contamination.
It’s not clear from the new contract whether the CES-led training will include information on how to effectively remediate cultivation sites after marijuana plants have been cleared. The documents specifically mentions the health and safety of Forest Service employees but is silent on broader environmental impacts.
Opponents of marijuana prohibition have for years argued that many of the environmental and health threats posed by chemical contaminants could be effectively eliminated through legalization. Though enforcement is inconsistent, most states that have legalized cannabis for adults have set strict limits on pesticides and other chemicals that can be used by licensed growers.
“It is hardly a surprise that those who elect to clandestinely cultivate cannabis on federal lands engage in practices that provide greater potential risks to both the environment and to the end product itself,” Paul Armentano, deputy director for the advocacy group NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “By contrast, a legal market provides regulatory oversight and demands that those engaged in these activities be licensed and utilize best practices.”
“While legalization itself will likely not entirely eliminate the illicit market, just as, for instance, broader alcohol legalization has not eliminated moonshining in its entirety,” Armentano added, “the reality is that it will continue to severely curtail these activities and the involvement of criminal entrepreneurs.”
Even many in federal law enforcement officials seem to agree on that point. In February, the head of the union for U.S. Border Patrol agents acknowledged that state-level cannabis legalization is forcing criminal cartels out of the market.
“The states that have legalized marijuana,” said National Border Patrol Council President Brandon Judd, “have done more damage to the cartels than the [Drug Enforcement Administration] could ever think about doing.”
Photo courtesy of Nicholas C. Morton
DC Activists Submit Signatures To Put Psychedelics Decriminalization On November Ballot
An ambitious campaign to decriminalize psychedelics in Washington, D.C., is one step closer to placing their measure on the November ballot with the formal submission of tens of thousands of voter signatures.
Organizers have been scrambling for weeks to collect enough signatures from D.C. voters by Monday’s deadline amid historically difficult circumstances: a global pandemic, months of stay-at-home orders and protests over racism and police violence that filled the streets of the nation’s capital. But with the help of innovative signature-gathering techniques and allies flown in from across the country, advocates said they had successfully submitted upwards of 35,000 signatures—more than enough to qualify the initiative.
If approved by voters, Initiative 81 would make enforcement of laws against plant- and fungus-based psychedelics among the “lowest law enforcement priorities” for the Metropolitan Police Department. It would not, however, legalize or reduce penalties for the substances.
The measure would apply to all natural entheogenic substances, including psilocybin, ayahuasca, ibogaine and DMT.
“Today is a milestone for D.C.,” Melissa Lavasani, chairwoman of Decriminalize Nature D.C., the organization behind the measure, said in a press release. “Voters in our nation’s capital have made clear that they are ready to end another piece of the war on drugs and to support their neighbors who, like me, have found relief in entheogenic plant and fungi medicines.”
Lavasani, a mother of two, has said psychedelic therapy helped her recover from postpartum depression. She told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview on Monday that removing stigma around psychedelics could help other patients find relief.
“A lot of people here are using these substances on the down low. It’s not something we’re open about,” Lavasani said. “My frustration when I was treating myself, I didn’t feel like I had resources to reach out to… What we’re trying to do here is not only get this initiative passed but try to create a community that’s really inclusive.”
Elections officials now have 30 days to validate the petitions, the final step before the measure is formally certified for November’s ballot. A total of 24,712 signatures are needed to qualify the measure, a Board of Elections representative told Marijuana Moment on Monday.
Decriminalize Nature D.C. has already independently verified more than 27,000 of the collected signatures, said Adam Eidinger, a longtime drug reformer and the campaign’s treasurer. “According to our validation, we have exceeded [the required] number by more than 2,000 signatures—at least,” he told Marijuana Moment.
— 🔥Adam Eidinger 🌊 (@aeidinger) July 6, 2020
Polling suggests D.C. voters are open to the idea. According to a survey released in April by campaign organizers, 51 percent of respondents initially said they supported decriminalizing psychedelics, while 27 percent were opposed. After being read pro and con arguments about the initiative, support rose to 59 percent, while opposition increased to 32 percent.
Most who were surveyed said they hadn’t used psychedelics themselves. Ten percent of respondents said they had personally used psilocybin or magic mushrooms, and 23 percent said someone close to them has. Only single-digit percentages of voters said they or someone close to them had experience with ayahuasca, mescaline or ibogaine.
Majorities of respondents, however, said they or someone in their life had experienced mental health issues such as anxiety or depression. Nearly a third said they knew someone who has experienced PTSD, which a growing body of research suggests could be effectively treated with psychedelic therapies.
“D.C. residents who benefit from entheogens include those suffering from mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, and other traumas, veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and patients in end-of-life care,” the campaign said in a statement Monday.
Find us at Church ST NW & 14th St NW! pic.twitter.com/BDvqonnfm6
— DecrimNatureDC (@DecrimNatureDC) July 4, 2020
Despite apparent support for the measure, qualifying it for November’s ballot was a daunting task for activists, who had to update their tactics amid coronavirus-related social distancing.
In March, organizers asked elections officials to allow them to gather signatures electronically, but neither the mayor nor the D.C. Council acted on that request.
Instead, the Council passed a novel bill that allowed a hybrid approach: Organizers could distribute petition forms electronically, but voters would have to print a physical copy in order to sign it. From there, residents could simply snap a photo of the signed document and return a digital copy to the campaign.
Officials also, for the first time, allowed people to sign their own petition sheet instead of having to use one controlled by a separate person—a longstanding prior policy that contributed to initial signature gathering difficulties during a time of social distancing and stay-at-home orders.
Eidinger told Marijuana Moment the campaign received nearly a thousand signatures through email alone. “We have 980 signatures collected through email,” he said. “That’s the first signatures ever collected through email in the United States.”
Help put #Initiative81 on the ballot! Just download, print, sign, take a photo, and email us your petition. Download the PDF of the official #Initiative81 petition with Instructions: https://t.co/DKIuEakgUd pic.twitter.com/mWPT3yvzaN
— DecrimNatureDC (@DecrimNatureDC) July 1, 2020
The campaign also sent petitions by postal mail to every registered voter in the District in order to reach people at home, and signature-gatherers petitioned voters at demonstrations and on sidewalks and street corners across town.
Organizers also had help from activists from across the country, including those behind Denver’s successful drive to decriminalize psilocybin, who flew to Washington in recent weeks to help gather signatures.
— DecrimNatureDC (@DecrimNatureDC) July 5, 2020
“Despite unprecedented challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic, D.C. voters from all 8 wards signed the petition to support common-sense reforms to police priorities that would help ensure that D.C. residents using natural plant and fungi medicines are not targeted by law enforcement,” the campaign said in a press release.
Lavasani, the mom behind the decriminalization campaign, said that with signature gathering now out of the way, the focus shifts to winning over voters. “For our campaign, today is also the beginning of the next phase to make Initiative 81 law,” she said. “We look forward to engaging and educating D.C. voters so that on November 3, D.C. says ‘Yes on 81’!”
Momentum for similar reforms is building across the United States, and Lavasani said a win in the nation’s capital could help propel the issue forward.
“I can see the Capitol from my house,” she said. “I think it’s really important to acknowledge that this could lay the groundwork for national reform.”
Here’s a status update on other drug policy reform campaigns across the country:
An Oregon effort to decriminalize drug possession and increase funding for treatment officially made it onto the ballot last week.
Another Oregon campaign to legalize psilocybin for therapeutic use turned in what advocates believe are more than enough petitions to qualify, but some submissions must still be validated by the state.
In Arizona, the organizers of a legalization effort turned in 420,000 signatures to qualify for the ballot last week.
Organizers in Nebraska last week submitted 182,000 signatures in an attempt to put a medical marijuana measure on November’s ballot.
Montana activists recently turned in more than 130,000 signatures to qualify a pair of marijuana legalization initiatives for the November ballot.
Idaho activists behind a medical marijuana legalization initiative could get a second wind after a federal judge said recently that the state must make accommodations for a separate ballot campaign due to signature gathering complications due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak and stay-at-home mandates, measures to legalize marijuana for medical and recreational purposes qualified for South Dakota’s November ballot.
The New Jersey legislature approved putting a cannabis legalization referendum before voters as well.
And in Mississippi, activists gathered enough signatures to qualify a medical cannabis legalization initiative for the ballot—though lawmakers also approved a competing (and from advocates’ standpoint, less desirable) medical marijuana proposal that will appear alongside the campaign-backed initiative.
A campaign to legalize cannabis in Missouri officially gave up its effort for 2020 due to signature collection being virtually impossible in the face of social distancing measures.
North Dakota marijuana legalization activists are shifting focus and will seek qualification for the 2022 ballot.
Washington state activists had planned to pursue a drug decriminalization and treatment measure through the ballot, but citing concerns about the COVID-19 outbreak, they announced last month that they will be targeting the legislature instead.
Mississippi Medical Marijuana Activists Relieved After Controversial Legalization Resolution Stalls Out
Mississippi lawmakers recently introduced a new medical marijuana resolution that would’ve represented another threat to an activist-driven reform initiative that will appear on the November ballot. But, to advocates’ relief, the legislation didn’t advance before lawmakers went home for the summer.
The resolution, introduced by Sen. Kevin Blackwell (R), called for the suspension of legislative rules so that lawmakers could draft and file a bill to legalize cannabis for therapeutic purposes. It advanced through the Senate Rules Committee last week, but it did not make it onto the floor.
The legislature could technically be called back by the lieutenant governor, who presides over the Senate, before October 10—but insiders expect that if that were to happen, the purpose would be to approve emergency legislation related to the coronavirus pandemic.
Lawmakers already approved an alternative medical marijuana resolution in March. That one will appear alongside the activist-backed initiative on the ballot, and advocates have argued that the only reason lawmakers passed it was to undermine them by confusing residents and splitting votes. The legislature-approved measure is less specific than the one placed on the ballot with voters’ signatures, leaving room for interpretation and giving lawmakers the opportunity to enact a more restrictive program should it pass. It is also includes a ban on smoking medical cannabis for patients who are not terminally ill.
Legislators also introduced another resolution last month that would have suspended legislative rules so that they could craft legislation in accordance with the legislature-approved constitutional amendment on the ballot, presumably so voters would have a better idea of what lawmakers have in mind with their alternative to activists’ measure. It too cleared the Rules Committee but never came to the floor.
Interestingly, the latest resolution filed last week doesn’t mention the proposed constitutional amendment at all. Instead, it would have simply let lawmakers start working on medical cannabis legalization, potentially to demonstrate to voters that they were pursuing the policy change and that both competing questions on the ballot were unnecessary.
Jamie Grantham, communications director for Mississippians for Compassionate Care, the group behind the initiative, told Marijuana Moment that she thinks a marijuana business owner based in Arkansas orchestrated the resolution.
“He hired Mississippi lobbyists and twisted arms in Jackson to design a program that would allow him to dominate the medical marijuana industry here in Mississippi,” she said. “It’s an attempt to exploit patients in Mississippi with debilitating medical conditions like cancer, seizures, and multiple sclerosis, and to undermine the voices of 228,000 people who signed petitions to put Initiative 65 on the ballot for Mississippians to vote on in November.”
“At the polls on November 3, Mississippians will have the opportunity to approve Initiative 65, which guarantees Mississippians the medical marijuana they need right here at home,” she said.
The initiative would allow patients with debilitating medical issues to legally obtain marijuana after getting a doctor’s recommendation. The proposal includes 22 qualifying conditions such as cancer, chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder, and patients would be allowed to possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana per 14-day period.
The introduction of the latest resolution represents the latest wrinkle in a months-long conflict between activists and lawmakers. Then-Gov. Phil Bryant (R) expressed opposition to the activist-driven measure and suggested that legislators could pursue alternatives.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.