Colorado's Marijuana Arrests Disproportionately Impact Latinos, Blacks: MARP Report

A new report by the Marijuana Arrest Research Project (MARP) gives a startling look into marijuana law enforcement in Colorado.

According to MARP, over the past 25 years more than 210,000 people have been arrested for marijuana possession in Colorado -- and of those arrests, communities of color have been disproportionately impacted.

The "Marijuana Possession Arrests In Colorado, 1986-2010" report based on FBI Uniform Crime Report data offers a first-ever glimpse into the racial breakdown of marijuana arrests in Colorado that includes Latinos, who according to the MARP data, have been arrested at a rate 50 percent greater than that of whites. African-Americans who are also disproportionately affected by Colorado marijuana law, are arrested at a rate three times that of whites.

Key statistical takeaways from the report are as follows (read the report in its entirety here):

  • Marijuana possession arrests in Colorado increased from 4,000 in 1986 to over 10,000 in 2010, totaling 210,000 arrests over the past 25 years.
  • In the five years from 1986 to 1990, police in Colorado made 19,400 possession arrests. Twenty years later, from 2006 to 2010, police made 55,900 marijuana possession arrests, almost three times as many.
  • From 2001 through 2010, Colorado police made 108,000 arrests for possessing marijuana, overwhelmingly of young people. More than two-thirds (69%) of those arrested were 25 or younger, 79% were 29 or younger, and 86% of those arrested were age 34 or younger.
  • Whites, mainly young whites, made up 63% of those arrested in the last ten years. Blacks and Latinos, also mostly young, were 36% of the arrestees.
  • Although young African Americans and Latinos use marijuana at lower rates than young whites, in the last ten years police in Colorado arrested Latinos at 1.5 times the rate of whites and arrested blacks at 3.1 times the rate of whites.
  • In the last decade, blacks were 3.8% of Colorado's residents, but 10.5% of the marijuana arrests. Latinos were 19% of the state's residents, but a quarter (25%) of Colorado's marijuana possession arrests.
  • Marijuana possession arrests create criminal records easily found on the internet by employers, landlords, schools, credit agencies, licensing boards, and banks, erecting barriers to education, employment, and housing. Marijuana possession arrests do not reduce serious crimes, and they take police from other crime‐fighting work.
  • Colorado is often said to be a marijuana decriminalization state, but since the 1970s, Colorado law has made possession of small amounts of marijuana a crime, a Class 2 Petty Offense. Failure to appear in court as ordered by a summons is another crime, punishable by six months in jail and a500 fine.
  • In county courts, marijuana possession carries a100 fine. In municipal courts, however, judges can impose fines of300 or more, charge50 per month in probation fees, require regular drug testing, and send people to jail for several days if they have used marijuana.

The report was presented and addressed at a news conference held by the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, the pro-pot group behind Colorado's Amendment 64 -- a November ballot measure which seeks to end marijuana prohibition in the state by legalizing and regulating the sale of pot for recreational use by adults.

Along with the MARP report, the campaign also announced new data from the Colorado Bureau of Investigation that showed marijuana possession arrests in the state were up nearly 7 percent in 2011 compared to 2010. The campaign linked that data to an August report from the Colorado Center on Law and Policy that projected $12 million per year in criminal justice savings if Amendment 64 passes in Colorado.

Rosemary Harris Lytle, president of the local NAACP Colorado/Montana/Wyoming State Conference, appeared at the news conference in support of Amendment 64 saying, "Marijuana prohibition is taking a toll on all Coloradans, and it is our communities of color that are paying the biggest price."

Lytle added: "Law enforcement resources should be used to address violent and otherwise harmful crimes. They should not be directed toward the enforcement of irrational marijuana laws that disproportionately impact African-Americans and other people of color. It is time for a more sensible approach.”

Denise Maes, director of public policy for the ACLU of Colorado, also attended the conference and in a statement said, “Discrimination against Latinos has gone hand in hand with marijuana prohibition since its establishment. Our marijuana prohibition laws are doing far more harm than good, and that could not be more evident than in our Latino community. They are being disproportionately enforced against Latinos, and they are steering profits from marijuana sales toward cartels and gangs instead of legitimate Colorado businesses.”

If marijuana is legalized in Colorado it would be taxed and regulated similar to alcohol and tobacco. It would give state and local governments the ability to control and tax the sale of small amounts of marijuana to adults age 21 and older. According to the Associated Press, analysts project that that tax revenue could generate somewhere between $5 million and $22 million a year in the state. The same report from the Colorado Center on Law and Policy that showed criminal justice savings projected a $60 million boost to the state economy by 2017.

However, the big unknown still is if the federal government would allow a regulated marijuana market to take shape. Attorney General Eric Holder, who was a vocal opponent of California's legalization initiative in 2010 saying he would "vigorously enforce" federal marijuana prohibition, has continued to remain silent on the issue this year.

In September, Holder was urged by by nine former heads of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to take a stand against marijuana legalization again. "To continue to remain silent conveys to the American public and the global community a tacit acceptance of these dangerous initiatives," the nine said in the letter to holder obtained by Reuters.

Earlier this month those same DEA drug warriors joined by former former directors of the Office of National Drug Control Policy on a teleconference call to put additional pressure on Holder to speak out against Colorado's marijuana measure as well as similar initiatives on the ballot in Washington state and Oregon.

The drug warriors say that states that legalize marijuana for recreational use will trigger a "Constitutional showdown" with the federal government.

With less than two weeks before Election Day, the DOJ has yet to formally announce its enforcement intentions regarding the ballot measures that, if passed, could end marijuana prohibition in each state. The clearest statement from the DOJ came from Deputy Attorney General James Cole, who said his office's stance on the issue would be "the same as it's always been." During a recent appearance on "60 Minutes" Cole elaborated, "We're going to take a look at whether or not there are dangers to the community from the sale of marijuana and we're going to go after those dangers," Reuters reported.

Early voting has begun in Colorado and state voters are already deciding if marijuana prohibition should end in the Centennial State. This is the second time that Colorado voters will decide on pot legislation -- in 2006, voters rejected a similar recreational pot legalization initiative.

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