Special Report

States With the Largest Racial Disparities in Marijuana Arrests

As more states legalize marijuana, momentum is building for federal legislation that would legalize cannabis nationwide. A federal law putting cannabis in the same legal category as alcoholic beverages would be a relief to the millions of Americans who regularly smoke the mildly psychoactive flowering plant for recreational or medicinal purposes. 

A Gallup poll in August found a record 49% of U.S. adults said they have tried marijuana, up from 40% in 2015 and 30% in 1985. About 12% said they regularly smoke marijuana.

While opponents of marijuana legalization argue the drug causes societal and individual harms and is a gateway to harder drugs, marijuana legalization would relieve pressure on a judicial system clogged with nonviolent drug offenders and expunge criminal records of some past marijuana-related offenses. It would also help to eliminate one of America’s persisting racial disparities. 

Despite roughly equal usage rates, Blacks are 3.64 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. The racial disparity has not improved despite the growing number of states legalizing pot. (Here are the next states to legalize recreational marijuana.)

To identify the states with the largest racial disparities in marijuana arrests, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the report A Tale of Two Countries: Racially Targeted Arrests in the Era of Marijuana Reform from the ACLU. States were ranked based on the difference in the number of white and Black residents per 100,000 total residents arrested for marijuana possession from 2010 to 2018. Data was not available for Florida.

According to the report, there were 6 million marijuana-related arrests nationwide from 2010 to 2018, a decline from 8.2 million arrests from 2001 to 2010, though the ACLU noted an increase in arrests in more recent years. The vast majority of marijuana arrests — nine out of every 10 — are for possession. (Here is how much every state can make from legalized marijuana.)

Across U.S. states, racial disparity in arrests for marijuana possession ranges from 1.54 times more than whites to a whopping 9.62 times. Though in states that legalized marijuana, racial disparities average 1.7 times (while the average disparity is 3.2 times in the states that did not legalize pot) disparities persist even in these states, and in some cases, they even worsened, according to the ACLU.

Here are the states with the largest racial disparities in marijuana arrests