In 2019 California made the least felony pot arrests the state has seen in 55 years, but the racial disparities in marijuana enforcement are still evident.
Last week, the California Department of Justice released its annual report on crime in the state noting 4,950 people faced arrest in California last year for cannabis crimes. Felonies accounted for 1,181 of the arrests, and the remaining 3,769 were misdemeanors where Hispanics made up 49.6 of all arrests.
California NORML was quick to note that the number of felony arrests last year was the lowest since 1954. CANORML deputy director Ellen Komp told L.A. Weekly the 27 percent drop in total felonies from 2018 to 2019 is a continuation of a trend that started after Proposition 64 passed. In 2014, there were 13,300 felony cannabis arrests that made up 9.7 percent of all felony drug arrests, by last year that number was more than halved to 4.3 percent of all felony drug arrests. We basically went from 8,000 felony pot arrests to 2,000 overnight with legalization, and the numbers have trended down from there.
What Are People Being Arrested for?
Komp said the kinds of felonies still being charged under California law include, “maintaining a place where cannabis is being trimmed or stored or anything like that. They’re still charging that as a felony and they’re not always even expunging those crimes from the past if they had to do with marijuana.” she said. “We’re still trying to clean that up. And then there’s conspiracy, which is still a felony.”
Asked if it was possible that a good size chunk of the misdemeanors being charged in California at this point were felonies that were reduced, Komp replied, “Yes, a lot of felonies were reduced to misdemeanors. I’ve got to assume that a large percentage of those are.”
Anything that was a possession of less than an ounce became an infraction via Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s farewell tour in fall 2010, according to her.
Racial Trends in Enforcement
One of the biggest takeaways from the 2019 arrest data was the level of racial discrimination in the enforcement of cannabis laws that California still has on the books. The California DOJ data showed Hispanics accounted for 493, or 41.7 percent of felony arrests, Blacks for 263 (22.3 percent) and whites for 252 (21.3 percent). Males were 87.9 percent of those arrested for felonies, and juvenile felony arrests numbered 91. Males between the ages of 20-29 were the hardest hit demographic.
When CANORML looked at the new numbers against the 2018 Calfiornia census data, they found that, compared to the previous year, arrest disparities went up slightly for each race compared to whites. Blacks were 4.47 times more likely than whites to be arrested for a marijuana crime in California in 2019, vs. 4.05 times as often in 2018; for Latinx people the arrest disparity vs. whites rose to 2.02 times in 2019 vs. 1.66 times in 2018.
The racial bias Blacks see in receiving charges in California is even worse than the 3.6 times as many per capita being arrested for general possession charges across the country, according to an ACLU report from this spring. The ACLU also found Black people are 1.8 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, in California. Meanwhile, L.A. is just below the state average at 1.5.
But CANORML said, when the ACLU did their report, they included Hispanics in the data for whites. When CANORML referenced the numbers against census data with separation between Hispanic and white communities, the disparities all around only jumped even further.
“And the fact that that’s increased since legalization only shows you know that we haven’t done things right yet you know. That’s not justice for me,” Komp said. “And again, these are the same people that have so many barriers to getting licensed, you know that a lot of them don’t really have the option to get licensed because they can’t come up with the hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars it takes to do that.”
Komp did note the state has distributed $40 million so far in support of social equity programs with $6 million going to help Los Angeles.
L.A. Pot Arrests Equals Big Bail Money
Going deeper into local issued in L.A., said in Los Angeles County, between 2012 and 2016, Black people were just 8 percent of the population subject to the Sheriff’s Department jurisdiction, but represented 26 percent of cannabis bookings.
And those bookings are big bucks all over the city. Komp said “these practices were also extremely costly for the individuals who were most directly affected. For example, between 2012 and 2016, the Los Angeles Police Department made 7,600 arrests involving cannabis-related offenses. Those arrested individuals paid nearly $8 million in nonrefundable bond deposits.”
These bond numbers are on top of further socioeconomic impact across the state from the criminalization of cannabis, like taking community wealth primarily from high-poverty neighborhoods deepening the already-severe income and wealth inequality across the state.
Komp closed saying it’s a positive, “that the arrest rate continues to fall in California for marijuana crimes. But, sadly, the rise in the disparity for arrest between both Blacks and whites and Hispanics and whites is also continuing to rise.”