Are Young People and African Americans Better Off under Marijuana Reform?

Are Young People and African Americans Better Off under Marijuana Reform?

21 March 2016

This brief, preliminary report uses the multi-year experiences of two states that legalized marijuana for adults (Colorado and Washington) and three that decriminalized marijuana for all ages (California, Connecticut, Massachusetts) to test predictions by proponents that legalizing marijuana would benefit young people through regulation and benefit minorities by reducing racial disparities in arrest. Given the high costs and consequences in fines, jailings, loss of student loans, criminal records, etc., of arrest even for simple marijuana possession, reducing arrests is an important policy goal.

The answer to date is that reforms in these states have brought great benefits to persons under age 21 and to minority races, though not necessarily those predicted. The benefit is large reductions in arrests during the reform period, 2008 through 2014.* In the states that reformed laws, rates of marijuana arrest have fallen by 71% among those under age 21, 79% among those over 21, 80% among African Americans, and 76% among all other (nonblack) races. In the 45 states that did not reform marijuana laws, rates of marijuana arrest fell by 23% among those under age 21, 9% among those over 21, 15% among African Americans, and 16% among other races.

Table 1. Change in marijuana arrest rates, 5 reform vs. 45 non-reform states, 2014 vs. 2008

California Colorado Connecticut Massachusetts Washington Reform Non-reform
Total -76% -60% -67% -87% -90% -76% -15%
  Felony -40% -53% -31% -48% -84% -45% -16%
  Misdemeanor -85% -59% -69% -95% -90% -82% -15%
Age <21 -76% -32% -67% -90% -74% -71% -23%
  Age 21+ -76% -85% -64% -85% -98% -79% -9%
Black -82% -55% -69% -82% -91% -80% -15%
  Nonblack -75% -60% -67% -89% -90% -76% -16%
Disparity 2.5 2.3 3.6 5.6 2.1 2.7 3.0

Source: CJIS (2016). “Disparity” is ratio of black to nonblack arrest rates.

Thus, states that reformed marijuana laws reduced arrests among young ages 3 to 4 times faster, and among African Americans 6 to 7 times faster, than occurred in states that did not reform their laws. In 2 of the 5 reform states, arrest rates fell faster for those under 21 than for those 21 and older (and in one, by the same amount), the most interesting of several “spillover” benefits from marijuana reform on ages and offenses not targeted by the reform. That marijuana arrest rates have fallen substantially for ages under 21 in most states – led by those that decriminalized marijuana for all ages, followed by those that legalized marijuana for ages 21 and older, and including lesser but substantial reductions in states that did not reform marijuana laws – is an intriguing development meriting further study.

However, reforms have not reduced racial disparities in arrest rates. In three of the five reform states (Colorado, Washington, and Connecticut), disparities in arrests rates of blacks versus non-blacks remained roughly the same; in one (Massachusetts), disparities increased substantially; and in one (California), they fell. In states that did not reform marijuana laws, African Americans remained 3 times more likely than other races to be arrested for marijuana throughout the period.

Figures 1-4 sum up these findings. The Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice will be following up with more detailed reports on marijuana reform and age, race, and offense structure of arrests.

Figures 1-2. Change in marijuana arrests, reform states vs. non-reform states, rates per 100,000 population by black and nonblack race, 2014 vs 2008 (see note on method*)

Arrests per 100,000 population by race
Before reform After reform
Reform state/race 2008 2014 Change
California 214.5 51.0 -76%
   Black 627.6 113.8 -82%
   All other 182.1 46.1 -75%
Colorado 274.5 110.9 -60%
   Black 536.1 242.2 -55%
   All other 261.5 103.8 -60%
Connecticut 264.0 87.5 -67%
   Black 766.3 240.2 -69%
   All other 199.8 66.1 -67%
Massachusetts 169.9 22.5 -87%
   Black 493.4 89.4 -82%
   All other 141.8 16.0 -89%
Washington 299.2 28.8 -90%
   Black 636.9 57.2 -91%
   All other 283.3 27.3 -90%
All 5 reform states 224.8 53.1 -76%
   Black 620.3 127.1 -80%
   All other 194.4 47.2 -76%
Rest of US (45 states) 311.5 264.2 -15%
   Black 701.5 595.3 -15%
   All other 240.0 201.1 -16%
U.S. (all states) 290.7 213.2 -27%
   Black 691.2 535.9 -22%
   All other 228.2 161.1 -29%

Source: Criminal Justice Information Service (CJIS)(2016). Crimestatinfo, ASR drug by state. Annual data file provided by request from CJIS.

Figures 3-4. Change in age structure of marijuana arrests, reform states vs. non-reform states, rates per 100,000 population by age group, 2014 vs 2008

Reform states (5)   Non-reform states (45)
Age group 2008 2014 change 2008 2014 change
<18 183.6 74.5 -59% 189.7 128.3 -32%
18-20 1,308.5 253.7 -81% 1,824.7 1,518.1 -17%
21-24 753.2 124.7 -83% 1,162.3 1,029.6 -11%
25-29 414.4 80.3 -81% 698.0 631.9 -9%
30-34 231.0 56.8 -75% 400.3 391.8 -2%
35-39 150.3 38.8 -74% 250.9 253.0 +1%
40-44 116.4 27.8 -76% 181.8 159.0 -12%
45-49 88.1 22.1 -75% 136.2 115.5 -15%
50-54 55.9 17.0 -70% 77.0 85.0 +10%
55-59 33.0 10.5 -68% 37.2 49.8 +34%
60-64 14.6 5.1 -65% 16.8 23.2 +38%
65+ 2.9 1.3 -55% 3.0 4.7 +58%

Source: CJIS (2016).

*Note on method: the Criminal Justice Information Service (2016) provides state-by-state Uniform Crime Report statistics on arrests for drugs by race, age, and type of offense for 2008 through 2014. These numbers for felony and misdemeanor marijuana arrests are adjusted for the percentage of each state’s population covered by jurisdictions reporting to UCR and divided by each state’s population to produce population adjusted rates. UCR does not separate Latino ethnicity, and so arrest rates for Black populations are simply compared to those of all other races.

Contact: Mike Males, YouthFacts, mmales@earthlink.net