Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

Editor: Douglas A. Berman
Moritz College of Law

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

"How to Cut Down on Traffic Stops: Legalize Pot"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Marshall Project piece that carried the subheadline "New data shows legalization leads to fewer encounters between cops and drivers, but racial disparities remain."  Here are excerpts:

The legalization of marijuana in Washington state and Colorado had at least one unanticipated effect on the streets: a sharp decline in the number of traffic stops and searches by state police, a new analysis shows.  The drop means fewer interactions between police and drivers, potentially limiting dangerous clashes. But even though the number of traffic stops fell significantly for all racial groups, black and Hispanic drivers are still searched at higher rates than white motorists, the analysis found.

[This review of] stop and searches conducted by Washington and Colorado state patrols before and after marijuana became legal in both states in late 2012 ... was based on data obtained by researchers at Stanford University who released a report this week studying 60 million state patrol stops in 31 states between 2011 and 2015, the most comprehensive look at national traffic stops to date.   The data does not offer a complete picture because it includes only stops by state patrol agencies and not local law enforcement....

It is possible that pot legalization has not had the same effect on urban traffic stops as it has on those made by highway patrols because policing strategies differ, said Charles Epp, a University of Kansas professor who co-authored the 2014 book “Pulled Over: How Police Stops Define Race and Citizenship.”  State police tend to focus on accidents, impaired and reckless driving, and the transport of illegal drugs.  City police concentrate on crime deterrence and response....

The Stanford study suggests that removing marijuana possession from the potential list of crimes lowers the chance that a car will be stopped and searched.  And the numbers are striking.  In Washington, the search rate of black drivers age 21 and over decreased by about 34 percent after legalization, according to the analysis by Reveal and The Marshall Project.  Search rates of white and Hispanic drivers in the same age group declined by about 25 percent.

Still, racial disparities remained: Both before and after legalization, black motorists age 21 and over – the legal age for buying pot – were searched at a rate roughly twice that of white drivers.  The search rate for Hispanics was about 1.7 times that of whites.

In Colorado, the search rate of African American drivers 21 and over dropped by nearly half, while the search rate of Hispanic drivers fell by 58 percent.  White drivers faced almost two-thirds fewer searches after recreational marijuana was legalized.  Racial disparities, however, also persisted in Colorado even as overall numbers of searches went down.  After legalization in Colorado, the search rate for African American drivers was 3.3 times that of white drivers, and the rate for Hispanics was more than 2.7 times that of whites.

The findings on stop and searches are similar to those showing a decrease in the number of marijuana arrests in Colorado after legalization, according to a 2016 Colorado Department of Public Safety report that reviewed legalization’s wide-ranging impacts.  The study showed that the total number of marijuana arrests dropped by nearly half after legalization, but the marijuana arrest rate for African Americans was almost three times that of whites.

Criminal justice developments and reforms, Recreational Marijuana Data and Research | Permalink


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