In 1996 Californians pioneered legalized medical marijuana. In 2010 then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill that made handcuffs no longer necessary for an allegation of possessing an ounce or less of pot. Since the passage of these laws, police in the Golden State's big cities, including Los Angeles, have seemingly made cannabis capers a very low priority. You're more likely to get a parking ticket in L.A. than one for smoking a joint on the street.

Yet as California voters prepare to consider Proposition 64, which would make holding up to an ounce of marijuana perfectly legal if you're 21 or older, the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) has released a new report that says there have been nearly a half-million marijuana-related arrests in the Golden State since 2006.

DPA has been integral to the campaign to legalize recreational pot in California. One of the claims of opponents has been that the Golden State already enjoys de facto legal marijuana under Proposition 215 and as a result of look-the-other-way policing in cities like L.A. The assertion is not unreasonable.

“Ask law enforcement,” Scott Chipman, the Southern California chair of Citizens Against Legalizing Marijuana, said last month. “They're not looking for marijuana users now. Right now we have backdoor legalization. The problem in California is we have too much marijuana.”

A new DPA report, It's Not Legal Yet: Nearly 500,000 Marijuana Arrests in California in the Last Decade, appears to be aimed directly at that argument.

“While many people believe that marijuana is essentially legal in California, data show us that thousands continue to be arrested annually for marijuana activities,” said DPA staff attorney Jolene Forman. “These arrests fall disproportionately on black and Latino Californians. The only way to begin to repair these disparities is to move marijuana into a fully regulated market and to reduce or eliminate criminal prohibitions for minor marijuana activities.”

Indeed, the report says African-Americans and Latinos consume and sell cannabis at similar rates to whites but suffer far greater at the hands of criminal justice.

Black Californians were arrested for marijuana-related crimes at three-and-a-half times the rate of white people in 2015, the DPA report says. Latinos were arrested for pot-related cases 35 percent more often than whites last year.

Overall, the report counted 465,873 cannabis-related arrests between 2006 and 2015 in California. Misdemeanor pot arrests plummeted 86 percent the year after Schwarzenegger signed SB 1449, the marijuana ticket bill that went into effect in 2011. But felony pot arrests have been “relatively stable” over the last 10 years or so, the DPA argues in the report.

“The reduction of marijuana possession from a misdemeanor to an infraction in 2011 dramatically reduced marijuana arrests in the state,” the report states, “but it did not go far enough.”

Alice Huffman, president of the California NAACP, says, “I am hopeful that marijuana legalization, as proposed in Prop. 64, will deal a blow to discriminatory marijuana enforcement in California.”

Credit: DPA

Credit: DPA

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