NOT WHITE PEOPLE. The disparities in cannabis- related arrest rates have long been a key factor in the argument for legalization, and you’ve probably heard this disturbing statistic: the American Civil Liberties Union reports that cannabis use rates are roughly the same across black and white populations, but black Americans are nonetheless 3.7 times more likely to get arrested for possession. Meanwhile, Hispanics make up less than 20 percent of the U.S. population but represent 77 percent of weed arrests in federal cases. But it’s not just possession charges. These race-based disparities affect growers too: people of color are much more likely to be targeted, arrested, and charged for cultivation. And legalization isn’t necessarily helping to correct that miscarriage of justice.
States that have voted to legalize are (predictably) reporting a dramatic decline in cannabis-related arrests, but (perhaps equally predictably) the statistics continue to reflect the institutionalized racism that’s always been a troubling factor of the War on Drugs. For example, since legalization, Massachusetts weed arrests are down by 50%. But 2016 statistics continue to show disturbing disparities: African Americans still made up 42.2% of the people arrested for growing or distributing weed—that’s seven times the rate of arrest for whites. This trend echoes in other states where recreational or medical is legal, including California: In 2015, African Americans were still five times more likely to be charged with a weed-related felony. In Colorado, black growers are 2.5 times more likely to be arrested for cultivation.
Although it’s more difficult to find solid statistics on cultivation charges leveled at other ethnic groups, it’s worth noting that Asian and Hispanic names turn up most frequently in news searches. Another trend we see is the targeting of foreign-born farmers. For example, California’s Siskiyou County made international headlines last year for cracking down on a recent influx of growers; the remote rural region has been in uproar since Hmong immigrants (and their American-born offspring) began buying up parcels of land and establishing hundreds of illegal grows. In response, the sheriff teamed up with the county prosecutor’s office and launched an onslaught against the Hmong. In four months, Sheriff Lopey and his team raided 113 farms—destroying 9,200 plants and 3,000 pounds of product.
Lopey cited safety concerns and complaints from neighbors as the driving force behind the raids, but the busts have raised questions about racial profiling. A remark from Siskiyou County district attorney, Kirk Andrus, did nothing to dispel that suspicion. Complaining that it’s almost impossible to build an airtight felony case against the Hmong growers (California’s new law makes illegal cultivation a misdemeanor), Andrus said, in a dubious turn of phrase, that all that’s left is to continue the raids “to make the nest uncomfortable.” Lawyers representing the Hmong community filed three civil rights suits against Lopey and Secretary of State Alex Padilla, alleging racial persecution.
In other parts of California, the focus shifts from Laos to China. This spring, Yuba County deputies arrested 14 Chinese and Chinese American suspects and brought in a massive haul of 8,000 plants. Further south, Sacramento and Yolo County cops also seem focused on bringing down Chinese operations: In September alone, Yolo County cops led three raids on Chinese-run grow houses. This pattern also plays out in Nevada and in Colorado.
On some level, it’s no surprise that law enforcement is concerned. Big illegal grows are infamous for environmental and safety violations, and large contingents of foreign-born growers tend to raise red flags about organized crime. But it’s questionable to assume that every Mexican-born grower is part of a cartel or that every Chinese grower has gang connections. While Sheriff Lopey explains that he’s targeting organized crime, Hmong growers respond by saying they’re a community—not a syndicate—and that they chose Siskiyou County because the remote and mountainous region reminds them of Laos—they dreamed of reuniting Hmong family and friends and returning to their people’s traditional pursuit: small scale farming.
Regardless of whom you support in this particular case, it seems clear that legalization has not solved the age-old problem of racial profiling in cannabis cases.