When Colorado voted to legalize marijuana in 2012, a big part of the promise was that police there would arrest and jail fewer teenagers for simple drug crimes. To a large degree, that has happened – to white people.
But when it comes to black and Latino adolescents, the story is very different. The central problem, police arresting a disproportionate number of minority teens for cannabis offenses, remains, according to a report issued in May by the Colorado Department of Public Safety.
According to the survey, the disparity between white and minority youth arrests has actually increased since marijuana was legalized for recreational use by way of a public referendum in November 2012. That’s concerning news, given that the gap was already far too wide.
Increasing disparity between whites and minorities arrested
Between 2012 and 2014, arrests of black teens between ages 10 and 17 grew by 58 percent, while 29 percent more Latinos were arrested for cannabis violations. The arrest rate for white adolescents, on the other hand, fell by 8 percent in the same time period.
The 2012 vote rendered marijuana legal for any use by adults over 2012. The law took effect in 2013, and the first legal pot shops opened in January 2014. Colorado adults are allowed to buy, possess, and use up to one ounce of cannabis, while visitors are limited to a quarter ounce.
Unlike adults, juveniles are still subject to arrest for possession of any amount. Mostly they are required to pay fines, but arrest and jail time remain a very real threat for many youths. That’s especially true for black and Latino students.
The increase in minority teen arrest rates has hit elementary and secondary schools statewide, which saw an increase of 34 percent in marijuana arrests between 2012 and 2014.
Inconsistent enforcement across Colorado
A big part of the problem is that enforcement of the laws barring possession by youths varies widely from school to school and county to county. This leads to systemic disparities in cannabis arrest rates, according to a report in BuzzFeed News.
Pueblo County, a largely white region, has the highest rate of adolescent cannabis use in Colorado, 32 percent. Yet it has the lowest arrest rate: Just five teens were arrested in 2014. Arapahoe County, meanwhile, has a much lower rate of marijuana use – 20 percent – but saw nearly 400 arrests in the same year.
The study by the Colorado Department of Public Health determined that black and Latino teenagers use marijuana at a higher rate than whites: 26 percent of blacks, 24 percent of Latinos, and 17 percent of whites. But the gap in enforcement is much larger. Black students, for example, are 1.5 times as likely to toke but 2.2 times as likely to be arrested for it.
It’s unclear what effect the report will have, but it has already cast doubt on the idea that legalization alone is enough to stamp out racist arrest policies when it comes to underage marijuana use.