The unintended consequences of marijuana decriminalizationPosted by On


America’s decades-long war on drugs disproportionately harmed minorities. Now, it seems that decriminalization of marijuana hasn’t leveled the playing field.

Black men are 12 times more likely than white men to spend time incarcerated in the United States. College enrollment for black men has declined since the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act went into effect.

I am a scholar of public policy. In my book, “From Criminalizing to Decriminalizing Marijuana: The Politics of Social Control,” I aim to provide a historic overview of marijuana legislation and its impact on minorities.

Unequal easing

Today, some drug laws related to marijuana are easing. Twenty five states have introduced decriminalization reforms, with 11 states allowing adult recreational use. Such reforms directly impact adults 21 years of age and older, but they also have indirect effect on younger Americans.

Even though marijuana is still illegal for people under 21, evidence is emerging that decriminalization is increasing the number of kids who consume weed illegally.

As I wrote in my book, young people have always been the main buyers of marijuana. Smoking marijuana has become an important part of growing up for many U.S. teenagers, a fact not acknowledged by any marijuana reform advocacy analysis.

Additionally, crime data show that even in the most permissive legal environments, minority youth continue to be disproportionately arrested and convicted on marijuana charges.

Youth using marijuana

From 2000 to 2014, self-reported usage rates in Americans 15 years of age and older doubled. These rates include teens and those under 21, for whom marijuana use continues to be and most likely will continue to be illegal.

Those who advocate for marijuana reform ignore the fact that looser laws promote more marijuana use, especially by young and marginalized Americans who buy the drug in illegal markets.

For example, arrest data show that in Colorado, legalizing recreational use for anyone 21 and over caused a significant increase in the arrest rates of African Americans and Hispanics under that legal age limit. At the same time, arrests for underage whites decreased.

In Washington state, arrests on all marijuana charges fell by 90% between 2008 and 2014, but “hazard rates” for African Americans remained unchanged. This means they were still twice as likely as whites to be arrested on marijuana charges.

In other words, decriminalization has done little to change historical patterns in national marijuana arrest trends.

Adults age 21 and over can buy marijuana for recreational use as of December in Michigan.
AP Photo/David Eggert

What drives reform?

Liberal Americans tend to believe marijuana legalization drives reform.

There are three distinctly different categories of marijuana policy reform – decriminalization of possessing a small amount of marijuana, legalizing medical marijuana and decriminalizing recreational use.

The reform diffusion trend picked impetus in 2000, when…

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