Marijuana Decriminalization: How Will It Impact Racial Inequities in Arrests?

Jun 30, 2020

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Wednesday, Virginia will decriminalize marijuana possession. But, that does not mean that enforcement of the law won’t fall disproportionately on Black people.

Will marijuana decriminalization really do anything about the racial inequities in Virginia’s War on Drugs? A new report from the ACLU says that’s really unlikely. Across the country, it shows more people were arrested for marijuana in 2018 than in 2015. That’s despite eight states legalizing or decriminalizing during that time.

Ashna Khanna at the ACLU says in every state that has decriminalized marijuana, Black people are still more likely to be arrested for possession. 

“There has not been any difference in racial disparities, and if anything decriminalization increases racial disparities," Khanna says. "And we know that civil penalties do not end racist pretextual stops by the police.”

Police in Virginia will still be able to use the smell of marijuana as a pretext to stop someone and search them. During the debate over her bill to decriminalize, House Majority Leader Charniele Herring explained that the new law does not prevent officers from searching a car if they smell pot.  

“No. No it doesn’t," Herring said. "And until it’s legalized, I don’t think we can constrain law enforcement on their observations until we legalize it.”

Black people are 3.4 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana in Virginia according to that ACLU report, which called on lawmakers to legalize it and stop the war on drugs.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.