Legalizing recreational marijuana use will not help minorities, but decriminalizing it can

by Julie Cappiello, Staff Writer

Marijuana is now legal for recreational use, yet people are sitting in jail for marijuana-related convictions. The legalization of recreational use in nine states and decriminalization in 13 is not enough to fight the racial disparity in marijuana-related cases.

A problem with legalization is that it is not the same as decriminalization. Decriminalization means the state changes its legislation to remove legal restrictions and eliminate criminal penalties, while legalization does not eliminate penalties.

Minorities are more likely to be arrested for marijuana-related crimes. Proposed policies can promote racism and the amount spent on incarceration. Weed is not decriminalized federally because society uses weed as a way to criminalize minorities.

Under Prop.64, people serving or convicted of marijuana charges may be eligible to petition for resentencing or dismissal of their charges. People who qualify for petitioning must fill out applications, undergo screening, have a hearing and the original judge must review the application. A reduced sentence relies on the type and the quantity of weed that was possessed at the time of the crime. Twenty-two states and D.C. have decriminalized small amounts of weed, and most of the penalties are small fines.

San Francisco has dropped and dismissed thousands of marijuana convictions as far back as 1975, but the issue is that decriminalization laws vary from state-to-state.

Under the Trump administration, Attorney General Jeff Sessions proposed a federal policy that leaves it up to state attorneys to decide whether to go after people for the cultivation, sale or use of weed. Sessions proposed policy allows local U.S. attorneys in the states where weed is legal to perpetuate stereotypes against minorities and their marijuana use.

There is a racial disparity in marijuana-related arrests. Black people were nearly 4 times more likely to be arrested than a white person. However, black and white people consume marijuana at almost the same rate, according to ACLU.

African Americans are only 12.5 percent of drug users, but they comprise 29 percent of the arrests for drug offenses and 33 percent of those incarcerated on drug offenses. African Americans and Hispanics make up 56 percent of those incarcerated in 2015, according to the NAACP.

The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports does not specify ethnicity, so the data on whether Latinos have a higher rate of marijuana-related charges than whites is lacking, according to ACLU. The lack in data hides racial disparity in arrests and considers Latinos to be white. This creates less awareness on the effects it has in Latino communities. The ACLU suspects that Latinos have the same rate of arrests as black people.

In 2010, 52 percent of all drug arrests were for marijuana, most of which were people in possession of small of amounts of weed.

With more than half of the drug arrests being for weed, the war on marijuana is becoming costlier for the U.S. government. In 2010, federal and state government spent more than $80 billion dollars on prisons and jails, according to The Hamilton Project. In the same year the U.S. Department of Education spent $63 billion dollars on public K-12 and college education, according to research published by Concordia University. The government would rather spend more on incarceration than prepare young generations for their futures.

This would not be an issue if weed was at least federally decriminalized. In multiple studies cited by National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, decriminalization showed little to no impacts on marijuana use.

Marijuana can be decriminalized and legal for adult use in all U.S. states, but it is the racial disparity that holds it back.