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Police Target People of Color for Cannabis Crimes Despite Legalization

Five more states joined the growing list of jurisdictions where cannabis has been legalized or decriminalized. But the new laws are a hodgepodge of regulation. Some states explicitly changed the laws to prevent police harassment by eliminating the odor of cannabis as sufficient probable cause to justify the search of a person. Not all states passed similar provisions, and this failure, in conjunction with confusing or contradictory regulations on cannabis possession and sales, have allowed police to further target Black and brown people.

In places where cannabis is legalized, it is not uncommon to smell cannabis in random places or to have it linger on a person’s clothes from being near a smoker. Police use the smell of cannabis to justify searching anyone they decide is “suspicious.” This turns out to overwhelmingly mean people of color.

In New York City, possession of less than two ounces is decriminalized. Yet 94% of cannabis-related arrests in the city in 2020 were people of color and just under 92% of them were Latinx. In Los Angeles, “75% of the people the LAPD arrested for cannabis-related offenses in 2020 were Black or Latinx, and the number of Black people arrested for pot-related reasons jumped 12% from 2019,” according to a report from Vice News.

The Washington Post also reported recently on this topic, noting just under 90% of cannabis-related arrests in D.C. during 2020 were Blacks.

The legalization of cannabis was supposed to free up police resources to allow for a shift towards violent crime investigations, yet police are still targeting Black and brown people for what amount to business code violations. This pattern exposes the fact that cannabis investigations have always been a proxy for racial profiling and oppression. 



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