Tuesday, October 18, 2022
I just saw this notable (and annoying) new Washington Post piece discussing arrest data for marijuana offenses in Virginia in the wake of the state's legalization reforms. The piece is headlined "After Virginia legalized pot, majority of defendants are still Black," and here are its first two paragraphs:
A year after Virginia lawmakers legalized recreational marijuana with hopes of lessening racial disparities in enforcement, police in the state are still more likely to arrest Black people than White people for marijuana-related offenses, a Washington Post analysis found.
While marijuana arrests overall dropped in the year since Virginia became the first state in the South to legalize, Black adults accounted for nearly 60 percent of marijuana-related cases before the state’s general district and circuit courts, an analysis of marijuana-related code citations in the state’s court system concluded, despite Black people accounting for about 20 percent of the state population.
Then, only after nine more paragraphs discussing Virginia's reform, policing practices and structural enforcement dynamics, we get this further accounting (my emphasis added):
While overall marijuana-related citations dropped by about 90 percent in Virginia from 2019, those bearing the brunt of enforcement still face compounding repercussions, said Ashley Shapiro, a public defender in Richmond and criminal justice reform advocate with Justice Forward Virginia. “Anytime there’s a criminal consequence it has foreseen and unforeseen consequences with getting a job, with applying for housing,” Shapiro said. “So there are a lot of collateral consequences, even in this time when it’s technically legalized.”
And then, starting with paragraph 21, we get some actual state-wide numbers:
The commonwealth decriminalized marijuana possession in 2020, leading to the first major dip in enforcement. In 2019, the state reported more than 26,000 marijuana-related adult arrests. That figure dropped to more than 13,000 in 2020. And for all of 2021 — which included the six months after legalization went into effect on July 1 — there were just over 2,000 marijuana-related arrests.
If I had any hair, this piece would lead me to want to tear it out. For starters, the piece nowhere indicates what percentage of marijuana arrests involved Black adults before Virginia's recent legalization reform. This ACLU accounting of pre-reform arrests in Virginia suggest that perhaps 70% or more involved Black persons. So, even on a percentage basis, Virginia reforms seem to be helping with racial inequities in marijuana enforcement (and why the Post would not mention at least that bit of good news is a mystery).
But, much more important, the true and significant story is the 90%+ drop in overall arrests that the Post discovered. So, if we want to focus just on the impact on Black people in Virginia, the real story is that in 2019 before reforms there were likely at least 18,000 marijuana-related arrests of Black adults in Virginia, whereas in 2021 after reforms there were only about 1,200 marijuana-related arrests of Black adults in Virginia. Put other way, the real racial justice headline should be that well over 15,000 fewer Black people in Virginia were subject to marijuana arrests and all the collateral consequences thanks to state reforms (and that's just from a single year of data).
The Post's report here is frustrating in part because it would be foolish for anyone to believe that any and all racial disparities in enforcement would instantly evaporate with legalization reforms. But it is even more frustrating because any and all sensible reform advocates are rightly focused on reducing overall criminalization of marijuana use in part because racial disparities have been so profound and so entrenched. Sigh.