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Despite legalization, people of color still disproportionately targeted for marijuana, new studies say

Marijuana legalization has been touted as one way to unravel the consequences of the war on drugs, but two new studies suggest that the communities most harmed by the nearly 50-year crusade — namely people of color — are not reaping the benefits.

Two reports, published by the American Civil Liberties Union and a team of researchers from Stanford University and New York University, respectively, analyzed different sets of police data and came to similar conclusions: despite legalization, minorities are still disproportionately searched and arrested for marijuana-related offenses.

The university researchers, who published their findings in the journal Nature: Human Behavior on May 8, looked at data from about 100 million traffic stops conducted by more than 50 state patrol agencies and municipal police departments across the country between 2011 and 2018.

They also analyzed data from Colorado and Washington, specifically, to gauge the effects of cannabis legalization.

The analysis found that police were less likely to conduct searches for contraband during traffic stops in states that have legalized marijuana for recreational use. Additionally, the portion of stops that resulted in either a drug-related infraction or misdemeanor fell substantially in Colorado and Washington after cannabis was legalized.

But despite the decline in overall vehicle searches, the report found evidence of racial profiling. Police subjected more black and Hispanic drivers to searches than white drivers in Colorado and Washington, the report said, adding that the barometer for vehicle searches was much lower for individuals of color.

“We found that white drivers faced consistently higher search thresholds than minority drivers, both before and after marijuana legalization,” the researchers wrote. “The data thus suggest that, although overall search rates dropped in Washington and Colorado, black and Hispanic drivers still faced discrimination in search decisions.”

Those findings dovetail with an April report from the ACLU that analyzed national arrest data from 2010 to 2018, when law enforcement made 6.1 million marijuana-related arrests. The organization found that on average a black person was 3.64 times more likely to be arrested for possession than a white person.

About 5% of the Colorado population is black or African American, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. However, black individuals were 1.5 times more likely to be arrested for possession than white individuals, the ACLU found.

In Colorado, it’s legal to buy and keep up to one ounce of cannabis per person at a time. Possessing between two and 12 ounces is considered a misdemeanor, and more than 12 ounces of flower (or three ounces of concentrate) is considered a felony.