The racial disparity in arrests is the product of many things including systematic racism (both explicit and subconscious), policing tactics, housing patterns, legacy of past policies, poverty, etc… So as we have seen in Washington state and Seattle, even after marijuana is legalized, the racial disparity in marijuana arrests doesn’t entirely disappear, but the damage it causes is dramatically reduced.
Marijuana use is the most common victimless crime that people of all races can get in serious legal trouble for. In 2012 there were an incredible 650,000 arrests for marijuana possession, more than all violent crimes combined. When marijuana is legalized that number plummets to almost nothing for people of all races.
As we saw in Washington state, adult arrests for less than 40 grams of marijuana dropped from roughly 7,000 before legalization to only 120 after legalization. While sadly African-Americans still made up a larger share of that very small pool than they should have, the total number of African-Americans arrested was cut to just a tiny fraction of what it once was.
Similarly, in Seattle African-Americans were ticketed for public marijuana consumption at a higher rate than whites. But we are talking about only a few dozen people, and the punishment was merely a small fine — unlike in other parts of the country where in similar-sized cities thousands face possible jail time and a criminal record just for having marijuana.
Marijuana legalization can’t by itself stop law enforcement from more aggressively targeting minority communities, but it removes one of the most common, unfair, and senseless reasons -by far- police have used to arrest and justify searches of hundreds of thousands of minorities.
Jon Walker is the author of After Legalization: Understanding the future of marijuana policy