In the U.S., Black and white Americans use cannabis at roughly the same rates, according to a 2013 American Civil Liberties Union Report—and yet, Black Americans are four times more likely to be arrested for possession.
That racial disparity says a lot about double standards for drugs in this country. And it raised a question in Brynn Sheehan’s mind: Has legalization or decriminalization affected those numbers? Would states with a legalized marijuana market have more equalized arrest rates between Blacks and whites?
In July 2021, Sheehan set out to find answers.
“I think it’s always important to step back and examine the implications of existing and changing policies,” she says. “While individual anecdotes are important, we also need to look at population-level impacts of policy change.”
Sheehan is an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Eastern Virginia Medical School. Her work focuses mainly on social and cognitive factors associated with substance use and aggression, the protective and risk factors of substance use and misuse and associated harms. She says she’s always been driven “to reduce health disparities and better understand policy effects and their … implications.”
This specific topic fell squarely into her wheelhouse.
For the study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Health Forum, Sheehan and several of her colleagues looked at arrest data from the Uniform Crime Reporting Program and Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results county-level population data from January 2000 through December 2019. They then compared arrest rates from 43 U.S. states, looking for differences between states with legal cannabis, decriminalized cannabis and illegal cannabis, examining outcomes for Black and white adults and youths per year and by state.
“We wanted to ensure enough data was included prior to states implementing any policy change to establish a baseline of racial arrest disparities, and the most up-to-date data included arrest rates through December 2019,” Sheehan says, explaining why they chose to look at data from such a long time period.
While Sheehan had anticipated some of their results, others took her by total surprise. She had expected to see reductions in the racial disparity of arrest rates in legal and decriminalized states. And sure enough, their results showed that legalization “was associated with 561 and 195 fewer arrests and decriminalization with 448.6 and 117.1 fewer arrests for Black and white adults, respectively.”
But she’d also somewhat expected arrest rates in prohibition states to remain stable. Without a change in cannabis policy, those numbers had no foreseeable reason to go up or down.
“Of course, we actually saw an increase in the racial disparities [in prohibition states],” she says. “Which is most concerning.”
Over the nearly two decades of data they analyzed, white Americans in states that had neither legalized or decriminalized continued to be arrested for possession of cannabis at a near-perfectly stable rate. While at the same time, over the same period in the same states, arrests of Black Americans increased notably—widening the racial disparity.
“This is the most concerning public health implication of the study, warrants attention, and in my opinion highlights the need for immediate policy change and implementation,” Sheehan says.
Her team also found that there was a timing differential between decriminalization and legalization states. When a state decriminalized, there was an immediate reduction in arrest rates for both Black and white Americans. However, when states legalized, the reduction in arrest rates started taking place before the policy was even officially changed, suggesting social and cultural changes had primed that shift.
These findings are extremely revealing, and should be important for policy makers and voters to consider, Sheehan says. They add to the argument that decriminalization and legalization advance social justice, and indicate that as public acceptance of a substance increases (be it alcohol, cannabis, psilocybin, etc.), prohibition becomes less tenable and a shift is needed to focus more on reducing harm, rather than criminalization and penalization.
“The notion of accepting the status quo, particularly when the status quo policy was racially motivated, is just unacceptable,” Sheehan says. “We need to do better to reduce racial disparities, and that includes fixing current policies to promote equity.”