A report released by the Drug Policy Alliance this month finds that there were nearly half a million felony and misdemeanor arrests related to marijuana in California between 2006 and 2015.
Thousands of Californians are arrested annually for marijuana misdemeanors and felonies, with a disproportionately high number of those being blacks and Latinos. In addition, youth under 18 now make up the majority of those arrested for misdemeanors. This November, Californians can vote to dramatically reduce unequal marijuana arrests when they decide on Proposition 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act.
In 1996, California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana when voters passed the Compassionate Use Act (Proposition 215). In 2011, California lawmakers reduced possession of up to an ounce of marijuana from a misdemeanor to a non-arrestable infraction. Despite California's more permissive marijuana-possession laws, the state had 465,873 marijuana arrests between 2006 and 2015. While the number of misdemeanors dropped by 86 percent after possession for personal use was reduced to an infraction, felony arrests remained relatively stable. During this period, there were on average 14,000 marijuana felony arrests each year. (This number dropped by one third, to 8,866, in 2015.)
Many people believe that marijuana is essentially legal in California, yet data show that thousands continue to be arrested annually for marijuana-related activities in the state.
Black people are more than twice as likely as white people to be arrested for marijuana misdemeanors, and nearly five times more likely to be arrested for marijuana felonies. Latinos are 35 percent more likely to be arrested for a marijuana offense—45 percent more likely for a misdemeanor and 26 percent more likely for a felony.
Youth under 18 now account for the majority of marijuana misdemeanor arrests. Prior to 2011—the year possession was reduced from a misdemeanor to an infraction—youth only accounted for one-quarter of misdemeanor marijuana arrests. As of 2015, youth account for two-thirds of marijuana misdemeanor arrests in the state.
Proposition 64 contains important sentencing reforms that eliminate or reduce most criminal marijuana offenses. All penalty reductions will be applicable retroactively. Thousands of Californians can petition to have their sentences reduced, and hundreds of thousands more may be eligible to have their criminal records cleared.
This piece first appeared on the Drug Policy Alliance Blog: www.drugpolicy.org/blog. Jolene Forman is a staff attorney for the Drug Policy Alliance.