States are Legalizing Cannabis While People of Color Serve Time for Marijuana Charges

marijuana plants with american flag in the background

In several states, people are discovering luxurious new ways to enjoy cannabis. While you're picking up some infused truffles on your way to a ganja-friendly yoga class, you probably aren’t thinking about the fact that there are still people in jail for marijuana, right here in America.

Most people in jail for marijuana charges are black and Latino. People of color are locked up for having pot, while white people rake in profits by selling it.

What the Data Shows

Across the country, nearly a half million people are serving time behind bars for nonviolent drug offenses. In 2017 alone, 659,700 people were arrested for marijuana violations. Every minute, at least one person is arrested for marijuana possession, according to 2016 crime data released by the FBI. That means more people are arrested for marijuana possession than for all violent crimes combined.

The exact number of people in jail for marijuana today is difficult to pinpoint. The U.S. prison system is managed by an assortment of federal, state, and local agencies, which don't all report their data to the feds.

Disproportionately Affected by Marijuana Laws

scale demonstrating uneven weight to show how people of color are disproportionately affected by marijuana law

The data does make one thing painfully clear: people of color are disproportionately arrested for pot.

The vast majority of people arrested for pot are black and Latino, even though white people consume cannabis at similar rates. Although most states now have legal marijuana in some form, black people are still being arrested at higher rates – even in states where pot is legal.

In Colorado, the first state to open recreational dispensaries, black people are still three times more likely to get arrested for pot than white people. In some counties in Pennsylvania, the disparity has been increasing: black people are seven times more likely to be arrested for pot. In New York, a 2018 investigation showed that black people were arrested for pot at eight times the rate of white people, despite near-identical marijuana consumption rates.

Meanwhile, in the legal marijuana industry, selling pot is generating billions of dollars in profits – almost exclusively for white people.

These numbers point to a bigger conversation about race and policing in America. There are several reasons non-white cannabis users are more vulnerable to arrest.

Minority populations often live in urban areas. They may be less likely to have private space at home. This makes them more inclined to smoke pot outside, where they're easier targets for cops.

"The war on drugs aims its firepower overwhelmingly at aims its firepower overwhelmingly at African-Americans on the street, while white users smoke safely behind closed doors," explains the New York Times.

Vicious Cycle

red arrows on a green background showing the cycle of people in jail for marijuana

Each year, hundreds of thousands of people are arrested for pot. The majority of them are never convicted of a felony. These cases are more likely to result in punishments like community service or fines. But even if your crime is a misdemeanor – and even if it eventually gets dismissed  it can still follow you. Your arrest stays on your record for years. It affects your future prospects for employment, student loans, and benefits.

Potential employers can easily access your criminal record. With your job prospects crippled, you're more likely to have to find housing in disadvantaged communities. You're more likely to spend time hanging out on the street, where you're an easier target for police. The same goes for your kids.

A marijuana arrest can also cause your kids to grow up without a parent.

In 2010, Bernard Noble, an African-American man who was working as a trucker to support his seven children, was stopped by police while riding a bike in New Orleans. Cops found a small bag of marijuana in his pocket – enough pot to roll two joints. Noble was sentenced to over 13 years in prison.

Although he'd never committed any violent crimes, Noble spent seven years behind bars. In 2018, thanks to valiant efforts by advocacy organizations, activists, and his family, he was granted parole.

"I cried a lot of times in prison silently because you can't do it out loud in a treacherous place like that," Noble said, as he tearfully reunited with his family outside the prison.

Now, he intends to work in activism.

The Injustice Is Far from Over

stack of cash with a gavel on top showing the rough bail bond industry

Among the hundreds of thousands of marijuana arrests made each year, many are made by local law enforcement agencies. These officers hold people in local jails. Most of the people arrested on a possession of marijuana charge can be released on bail. But if you don't have enough money, you can't make bail. You stay in jail.

Because local jails don't have to report their data, it's hard to pin down the exact number of people in jail for marijuana at any given moment. But the vast majority of them are considered lower income. Due to institutional cycles of poverty, they are more commonly black or Latino.

If you need bail money, you may turn to the thriving bail bonds industry. These companies provide loans to people who are locked up  or their families  who are desperate to post bail. Later, the companies charge predatory interest rates, locking these families – who are mostly black – in a cycle of debt and poverty.

Prior Convictions

small bag of marijuana flower showing what can get you a possession of marijuana charge

Even if you get released without serving any time, your arrest may come back to haunt you, if you get arrested again. A judge can use prior pot convictions to justify a longer sentence. (Bernard Noble had previously been convicted for possessing a small amount of marijuana for personal use. That's why he was sentenced to 13 years.)

This is another reason it's hard to pinpoint the exact number of people in jail for marijuana. Crime data may show someone as being in prison for a more serious crime, when the length of their sentence actually stems from prior marijuana convictions.

Combined with mandatory minimum sentencing laws and "broken windows policing," which focuses on low-level crimes as a deterrent to more violent offenses, marijuana prohibition has hurt minority communities in ways that continue that reverberate across the nation.

White People Make Money off a Growing Industry

100 dollar bill with cannabis leaf on top

There are no official statistics on race and cannabis business ownership, but a Buzzfeed investigation found that less than one percent of U.S. dispensary owners are black.

In many states, black people are actively being shut out of the marijuana industry.

Colorado, for example, prohibits anyone with marijuana charges on their record from working in the industry. Employers want job applicants with cannabis experience – as long as they didn't get caught for it. So, basically, white people.

Injustice Embodied 

congressional building with american flag

While John Boehner served in office, wielding the power to change discriminatory policies (like mandatory minimum sentencing, stop and frisk, or the money bail system), Boehner said he was "unalterably opposed" to marijuana legalization. During his political tenure, he sat by while hundreds of thousands of people were locked up for marijuana charges.

After Boehner got out of office, and realized the marijuana industry was worth nearly $10 billion, he changed his tune. He is now on the board of Acreage Holdings, a marijuana producer valued at about $2.8 billion.

Federal Legalization Won’t Fix It

outdoor marijuana grow operation with blue sky, highlighting that there are still people in jail for marijuana even though it is legal in some states

The racially-disparate cannabis arrests are part of the larger problem of mass incarceration in America. The U.S. locks people up at higher rates than any other country in the world. Our country has less than five percent of the world's population, yet nearly 25 percent of the world's total prison population.

Nearly 60 percent of America's incarcerated population is black or Latino – despite these groups making up only about 30 percent of the general U.S. population.

Part of the problem is the private prison industry, which makes its profits by housing U.S. prisoners in its incarceration facilities. This industry is motivated to keep people in jail. They contribute millions to political candidates – almost exclusively to Republicans.

The Problem is Complex

empty jail cell with small amount of light coming in

Last year, Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced legislation called the Marijuana Justice Act. The bill is designed to begin repairing the damage inflicted on poor and minority communities. It would legalize marijuana, expunge marijuana convictions from people's criminal records, and penalize states with racially-disproportionate arrest and incarceration rates for marijuana charges. States that continue to arrest or imprison minorities at higher rates for pot crimes would be denied certain funding. Those withheld funds would instead be diverted to a new "Community Reinvestment Fund," which would invest (through job training and small-business grants) in the communities hit hardest by marijuana prohibition.

In Congress, several prominent Democrats are co-sponsoring Booker's Marijuana Justice bill. So far, zero Republicans have signed on.

The bill is considered unlikely to pass. Now that the House is controlled by Democrats, there's renewed excitement about federal marijuana legalization, but it's unclear whether racial justice will be part of the Democrat's overall legalization platform.

States and Cities are Making Progress

stacking coins to show equity

California, Oregon, and Massachusetts have enacted laws intended to include minorities in their cannabis industries.

Massachusetts is implementing the first statewide marijuana business "equity" program. (Massachusetts is also the first state to allow former convicted felons to work in the industry.) The equity program, which was first pioneered by the city of Oakland last year, gives preferential treatment to the communities that have been marginalized by the war on drugs.

In Oakland, half of new cannabis business permits issued each year must be awarded to "equity applicants." To qualify, you must be earning below the city's median income, and have either lived in a neighborhood disproportionately targeted by law enforcement, or have gone to prison for marijuana charges.

Meanwhile, Portland, Oregon was the first city to require a portion of its cannabis tax revenue to be reinvested into communities of color. (Los Angeles and San Francisco hope to implement similar legislation.)

California's adult-use law, which passed in 2016, requires a portion of cannabis tax revenue to be re-invested into "communities disproportionately affected by past federal and state drug policies." California lawmakers have also introduced a separate bill to help former convicts expunge their pot-related felonies. (The state's Proposition 64 eliminated most pot-related crimes, but didn't provide convicts with an avenue for clearing their record.)

What Can We Do to Help?

small marijuana plant in a pot being held by gloved hands

Three Oakland residents created Hood Incubator, a business accelerator program that provides mentorship and other resources for black and brown people who want to enter the above-board marijuana industry. They're currently creating an investment fund to help minority cannabis entrepreneurs access start-up capital.

It's up to all of us to advocate for a more equitable industry.

You can try to shop at minority-owned businesses. If there are none in your area, you can also tell people about this problem. We need to talk about it. While over 60 percent of Americans support marijuana legalization, according to the same poll, only 40 percent agree that minority communities have been hit hardest by the war on drugs. Next time you spark up a perfect pre-roll, or buy a gram of THC-heavy flower, take a moment to remember your black and brown brothers and sisters who have gone to prison for doing the exact same thing.

You can also urge your Congressperson to support the Marijuana Justice Act. On the local level, you can support candidates and politicians who advocate for equity programs like Oakland's, or who intend to reinvest cannabis tax revenue into minority communities.

If you work in the cannabis industry, please do your damnedest to hire minorities. Our industry could lead the nation in terms of inclusivity, diversity, and restorative justice. We could inspire other industries.

In the technology sector, there's a famous motto attributed to Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg: "Move fast and break things." In the cannabis industry, maybe we can adopt a different principle. Maybe we can move with reasonable urgency, and mend things.