It’s Not Legal Yet: Nearly 500,000 Marijuana Arrests in California in the Last Decade

report released today by the Drug Policy Alliance finds that there were nearly half a million marijuana felony and misdemeanor arrests in California between 2006 and 2015. Thousands of Californians are arrested annually for marijuana misdemeanors and felonies. These arrests are not equal. Black and Latino Californians are arrested for marijuana offenses at disproportionately high rates. In addition, youth under 18 years of age now make up the majority of misdemeanor arrestees. This November, Californians can vote to dramatically reduce unequal marijuana arrests when they decide on Proposition 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act.

In 1996 California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana when voters passed the Compassionate Use Act (Prop. 215). In 2011, California lawmakers reduced possession of up to an ounce of marijuana for personal use from a misdemeanor to a non-arrestable infraction, similar to a traffic ticket. Despite California’s more permissive marijuana possession laws, the state had 465,873 marijuana arrests between 2006 and 2015. While the number of misdemeanors dropped by 86 percent after possession for personal use was reduced from a misdemeanor to an infraction, felony arrests remained relatively stable. During this period, there were on average 14,000 marijuana felony arrests each year (this number dropped by a third to 8,866 in 2015). In addition, thousands of marijuana possession infractions were issued during this period, disproportionately burdening black and Latino youth.

Many people believe that marijuana is essentially legal in California, yet data show us that thousands continue to be arrested annually for marijuana related activities in the state. These arrests fall disproportionately on black and Latino Californians. The only way to begin to repair these disparities is to move marijuana into a fully regulated market and to reduce or eliminate criminal prohibitions for minor marijuana activities, as proposed by Prop. 64.

Black, Latino, and white people use and sell marijuana at similar rates, yet black and Latino people are more likely to be arrested for a marijuana law violation. Black people were more than twice as likely as white people to be arrested for marijuana misdemeanors and nearly five times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana felonies. Latinos are 35 percent more likely than white people to be arrested for a marijuana offense: 45 percent more likely for a misdemeanor and 26 percent more likely for a felony.

Youth under 18 now account for the majority of marijuana misdemeanor arrests. Prior to 2011—the year that possession of marijuana for personal use was reduced from a misdemeanor to an infraction in California—youth only accounted for a quarter of misdemeanor marijuana arrests. As of 2015, youth account for two-thirds of marijuana misdemeanor arrests in the state.

In November, Californians will have the opportunity to vote on Prop. 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act. Prop. 64 contains important sentencing reforms that eliminate or reduce most criminal marijuana offenses. All penalty reductions will be applicable retroactively. Thousands of Californians can petition to have their sentences reduced and hundreds of thousands more may be eligible for criminal record clearing.

“I am hopeful that marijuana legalization, as proposed in Prop. 64, will deal a blow to discriminatory marijuana enforcement in California,” said Alice Huffman, president of the CA-Hawaii NAACP. “Prop. 64 also provides Californians the opportunity to repair decades of marijuana enforcement inequities though its retroactive sentencing and criminal record clearing provisions, along with dedicated community reinvestment funding.”

This piece first appeared on the Drug Policy Alliance Blog:


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