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California Is Still Arresting Too Many People of Color for Cannabis

August 22, 2017
San Francisco, USA - May 22, 2013: Highway patrol vehicle parking at the Golden Gate Bridge
California residents voted overwhelmingly to legalize cannabis for all adults last November. Yet law enforcement’s approach towards the drug has yet to fully evolve along with public attitudes. That’s according to crime statistics from 2016 released by the California Department of Justice last week.

Marijuana felony arrests fell by nearly half from 2011 to 2016. But racial disparities remain.

That crime data confirms a disturbing trend seen in other cities and states: While arrests for cannabis are on the decline, the disparity between arrest rates for white people and people of color still persists. Non-white people are much more likely to be arrested for marijuana in California, despite having the same rate of consumption.


Overall, marijuana arrests in California have plummeted since 2011—from 21,860 that year, to 13,810 last year. Felony marijuana arrests fell 44%, from 14,092 in 2011 to 7,949 last year.

Felony marijuana arrests dropped 44% from 2011 to 2016.

But those drops did not happen because of legalization—at least not directly.

In 2010, with a marijuana legalization measure on the ballot, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law a bill that made possession of an ounce or less of cannabis a civil infraction, punishable only by a fine.

In 2014, following a voter-approved ballot proposition, most drug-related felonies became misdemeanors. Felony marijuana arrests promptly dropped by a third, as many of those offenses moved into the misdemeanor category. As cannabis arrests fell, overall misdemeanor drug offenses (including but not limited to marijuana) shot up from 92,469 in 2014 to 163,073 in 2015.

Possession of an ounce or less of cannabis became legal for adults 21 and over in California on Nov. 8, 2016, the day more than 57 percent of voters approved Proposition 64. Sale of marijuana remains illegal (except for medical sales) until the state opens up its regulated system in 2018.


This One Chart Captures Everything Wrong With NYC Cannabis Arrests

Voters in three other states—Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada—approved marijuana legalization on Election Night, joining Colorado, Washington, and Oregon.

In California, retail sales of recreational marijuana won’t begin until sometime after Jan. 1, 2018, by which time the state is supposed to issue business licenses to cultivate, transport, and sell the plant. Until then, the only legal method to purchase cannabis in California is with a medical marijuana recommendation.

But even as legalization loomed large in the state last year, marijuana still represented a significant portion of court caseloads in California.

Overall, drug arrests have increased significantly since 2011, although a larger percentage of those arrests are misdemeanors, not felonies. More than 220,000 people were arrested for drug crimes in California in 2016. Of those, 182,002 arrests were misdemeanors. In 2011, there were 192,248 drug arrests all told, with 76,916 misdemeanor arrests.

California trend: More misdemeanor arrests, fewer felonies.

While possession of an ounce or less of cannabis is now legal in California, it’s still illegal to cultivate the drug for sale or sell it without a permit, as multiple large law enforcement raids this summer of what police say are illegal grows have demonstrated.

And legalization’s seeming inevitability has yet to solve the drug war’s glaring racial bias.

Before and after legalization, nonwhite people were still arrested for marijuana-related crime at a rate greater than that for whites despite similar rates of use, with the disproportionate policing falling most heavily on black people.

More than 70 percent of people arrested for marijuana in 2016 were nonwhite, according to the California DOJ’s annual Crime in California report.

Black people comprised 20 percent of the state’s felony marijuana arrests, despite making up 6.5 percent of the population.

2016 felonies: Black people make up 6.5% of California’s population, but 20% of felony marijuana arrests.

Of the 7,949 people arrested for marijuana-related felonies, 3,066 were Latino, 1,215 were classified as “other” (a catch-all category including Asians), and 1,592 were black.

Overall, of the 13,810 people arrested for marijuana in 2016, 4,051 were whites, 2,201 were black, 5,994 were Latino, and 1564 were classified as “other.”

California is 76.9% white, 17.8% Latino, 13.3% black, and 5.7% Asian, according to the US Census Bureau estimates.

Chris Roberts's Bio Image

Chris Roberts

Based in New York City, Chris Roberts has been writing about cannabis since spending a few months in Humboldt County in 2009. His work has been published in SF Weekly, Cannabis Now, The Guardian, High Times, and San Francisco Magazine, among others.

View Chris Roberts's articles

  • Alter Boy Villegas

    All the Libtards complain for Political Reasons why the Jails are full of Black Men . Gee I wonder why . Do the Crime and be ready to do the time . Blacks themselves can lower the Prison population but it wont happen in my lifetime or yours . Watch the News daily , They can’t help it . It’s in their DNA

    • badlin

      Uh, no.

  • Mike the bike

    This article makes no sense and is not based on science. Its is based on statistics and as Disraeli said, “there are lies, damn lies and statistics”. no cultural aspect is taken into consideration, such as Africans like to walk down the middle of the street smokin’ a blunt. Its a challenge thing.

    • John Rah

      Damn if they do….Damn if they dont…… So what basis do you disprove these statistics? …Where is your intellectual counter argument? Other than Utter B.S.?

  • Jackson Shredder

    What a great state we live in !!

  • calvet11

    I can’t blame the everyday street cop. To keep his job he has to make arrests, this comes from his boss, who got the same message from his boss, and so on up the ladder. So I can bust kids, blacks, and dumb asses all day long because it is easy and little chance of me getting hurt. My boss is happy, his boss is happy the idiot mayor is happy. Only the saps getting arrested are unhappy so who cares they don’t or can’t vote so screw -um. THIS LITTLE PLAY OUT IS WRONG! There is nothing wrong with this common weed in the first place and can really help people with a wide range of ill’s. What is wrong is the political motive of greed and power. If it wasn’t cannabis I’m sure it would have been some other “thing”. Make it Schedule 7 or whatever buckwheat is and call it a day.

  • Jamesha Saaquib

    Articles like this which try to paint law enforcement as being unfair to black folks has a counter and opposite effect. If this country will ever see equality, put the focus on all the cops who are doing a great job to serve and protect black folks. These anti-cop articles are very harmful to our entire society. Please stop!

  • quirk

    This is what works for me, though I’m a bit bigger and blacker than most; When Po Po lights me up I simply tell them that today I self identify as a white alphabet soup
    transistor homosexual priest and I’m usually told to move along.

    • Robert jungle

      Smart move.Started my day with a good laugh

  • Robert Brumley

    It doesn’t matter if it’s legal or not, it’s still against the law to be on it when you drive. Just like drinking and driving is against the law. It’s not a matter of race it’s a matter of how many stupid people are going to do cannabis then drive. Keep your paraphernalia and weed at home and not in your car.

    • Lisa Gage

      Reliable testing for this has not been established and cannot be compared to the other testing methods for DUI. Firmly believe testing is essential MADD MOM here but they are crossing the line by putting this plant in same category as serious dangerous drugs and alcohol and driving restrictions. Attending all the related political forums to be better informed on the rules will prevent unnecessary violations and less jail or prison for it! Science is working so hard across the world on this and we will find a solution 2018. In the meantime there are people right now in jail for ????? And then later after life ruined it was determined to be not held up in court over testing reliability.

  • Matt McLaughlin

    ‘Latino’ has no racial integrity. There’s over 100mil Whites in Latin Am.

  • John Rah

    Whites have always been 5 times more likely to have drugs in the car, but blacks are 10 times more likely to be pulled over….Why? Some of us are more interesting than others I suppose? .source:..2010 DOJ STATISTICS!

  • Mercy

    White People are devils. Of course you don’t see your evil. Everyone HATES you. Countries HATE YOU. BILLIONS OF PEOPLE HATE YOU.

    • quirk

      How do you really feel?