Black Coloradans arrested at twice the rate of white people nearly a decade after pot legalization

While marijuana-related arrests have decreased overall since 2012, wide racial disparities persist in Colorado, new state report finds

By: - July 22, 2021 5:00 am

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Though the total number of arrests for adults and juveniles for pot-related crimes has gone down overall since Colorado legalized marijuana in 2012, wide racial disparities persist, a new report finds.

The widest disparity is among Black Coloradans, who are arrested at twice the rate of white people for pot-related charges, according to a 180-page analysis published this week by the state Department of Public Safety. 

“This report provides a wealth of valuable information to help policymakers, law enforcement, schools, the marijuana industry, and the public understand the effects of legal recreational marijuana in our communities,” Stan Hilkey, executive director of the Department of Public Safety, said in a written statement.

“The information is presented in a comprehensive and unbiased manner, and I am proud of the detailed and extensive work our DCJ researchers have done to collect and analyze this vast compilation of data,” he added. 

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According to the report, which is required by law every two years, the total number of marijuana arrests decreased by 68% between 2012 and 2019, from 13,225 to 4,290. The number of marijuana arrests decreased by 72% for white people, 63% for Black people and 55% for Hispanic people. 

The analysis found that the marijuana arrest rate for Black people (160 per 100,000) was more than double that of white people (76 per 100,000) in 2019. The report noted that the disparity has not changed in any meaningful way since marijuana was legalized in Colorado in 2012. 

Similar disparities persist for juveniles arrested for marijuana-related issues. For white juveniles, arrests decreased by 47% from 2012 to 2019, compared to 41% for Black juveniles and 26% for Hispanic juveniles.

The majority of marijuana arrests are for possession. For example, 76% of marijuana-related arrests in 2019 were for possession, according to the report. In Colorado, a person over the age of 21 can legally possess up to an ounce of marijuana but is prohibited from consuming it in public.

For state Rep. Jennifer Bacon, a Denver Democrat and member of the Black Democratic Legislative Caucus, the data puts a spotlight on how deeply embedded racism is within the criminal justice system. 

“If we’ve done all of these things to equalize what we would call a crime around marijuana, and we’re still twice as likely to be arrested, that means there’s still something to be said about our perceived criminality,” said Bacon, who also serves on the Denver Public School Board.

If you're going to create a whole bunch of laws that concentrate poverty and behaviors, and then you just park a police car there, you're going to find what you're looking for. I always say, if you ever put a squad car in a college dorm the way you put it in certain neighborhoods, you would find just as much.

– State Rep. Jennifer Bacon, a Denver Democrat

Bacon co-sponsored legislation this session that sought to limit arrests and the use of cash bail for people accused of committing low-level, nonviolent offenses.

At the heart of the legislation, Senate Bill 21-273, was a push to reduce the number of people being held in jail while awaiting court — a group that is disproportionately represented by low-income individuals and people of color. But the legislation did not move forward after pushback from law enforcement agencies.

“Senate Bill 273 opponents were like, well police need discretion, and I’m like, this is what happens when you give them discretion,” she said, referencing the state marijuana report. “If we think police are going to solve their own problems, then we’re crazy because when we leave it to them we get these numbers.”

Jennifer Bacon
Rep. Jennifer Bacon, D-Denver, speaks on the House floor during second reading of the 2021-2022 long bill on April 14, 2021. (Faith Miller/Colorado Newsline)

She said the data outlined in the report does not surprise her, given the decades of disinvestment and over-policing in neighborhoods where people of color live. 

“If you’re going to create a whole bunch of laws that concentrate poverty and behaviors, and then you just park a police car there, you’re going to find what you’re looking for,” she said. “I always say, if you ever put a squad car in a college dorm the way you put it in certain neighborhoods, you would find just as much.” 

Bacon said she sees a lot of state efforts regarding diversity, equity and inclusion efforts but not enough action.

“A part of me is just like, well, here’s another report demonstrating what many in our communities know to be true,” she said. “We can feel it when it’s happening to us. And I just hope that this 180-page objective report is not rationalized away. Two times more likely to be arrested is not a notion that we are more criminal by birth, it’s a notion of disparity.”

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Moe Clark
Moe Clark

Reporter Moe Clark covers criminal justice, housing and homelessness, and other social issues for Colorado Newsline.

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