Studies show failure in reducing disparity in Black arrest rates or creating minority business owners
As the Minnesota Legislature considers legalizing recreational marijuana in the second of its two-year biennium starting Jan. 31, opponents of the move argue that benefits for minority communities promoted in other states — in the form of correcting racial disparities in arrests or including minorities as business owners — have not delivered.
Similar efforts embedded in the Minnesota legislation are destined to fail as well, they say. And the safety and health risks to all communities heavily outweigh any benefits of legalizing the drug for recreational use, argue anti-marijuana advocates, including the Minnesota Catholic Conference.
Blacks, for example, who across the country have been disproportionately arrested for marijuana use or possession and other offenses, continued to endure marijuana-related arrests at a higher rate than whites — even as overall marijuana arrests fell — in two states, Colorado and Washington, that legalized recreational marijuana in 2012, according to a 2016 study by the San Francisco-based Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.
In Washington in 2008, the arrest rate for marijuana offenses among Blacks was 877.8 per 100,000 people, more than double what it was among all other races, which were 390.5 per 100,000, the study found. In 2014, the arrest rate for marijuana-related offenses, such as using marijuana in a public area or driving while under the influence, fell for Blacks to 57.2 per 100,000, but for non-Blacks it dropped to 27.3, the center reported.
In Colorado, the arrest rate for marijuana-related offenses among Blacks was 601.3 per 100,000 people in 2008, and for non-Blacks it was 293.3. In 2014, the arrest rate had dropped to 242.2 per 100,000 among Blacks, but went even lower, to 103.8, among non-Blacks, according to the study.
“The forces that contribute to racial disparities under prohibition are clearly still in place after legalization,” such as police spending more time in poorer, Black neighborhoods than white neighborhoods, arresting on-the-street drug dealing and not investigating what might be happening in high-rise apartments and condominiums, said Mike Males, a senior research fellow at the center who compared the data.
Continued racial disparities in arrests run contrary to what advocates of legalizing recreational marijuana have promised, Males said. “I think it’s something that people advocating to legalize marijuana have to answer for,” he said.
MCC’s government relations associate, Ryan Hamilton, said government surveys show that Black and white people use marijuana at roughly the same rate. “Despite this similarity in use, research has found that Black Americans are nearly 3.5 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession. So, at least in terms of possession crimes, there is a disparity in how marijuana laws are being enforced.”
Will Jones, director of communications and outreach for Alexandria, Virginia-based Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), said he has reviewed similar studies around the country. It is a mixed bag, but in some of the 19 states where recreational marijuana is legal, overall arrest rates of Blacks actually increased, even as fewer Blacks and others were arrested for specific marijuana offenses, such as possession, he said.
“What we’ve found is that equity in the war on drugs is a great concept,” Jones told The Catholic Spirit. “But no state has been able to do that.”
‘Decriminalize, but don’t commercialize’
SAM, along with many other anti-marijuana activists and the Minnesota Catholic Conference, the public policy voice of the Catholic Church in Minnesota, argue that marijuana should not be legalized. But it could be decriminalized, with penalties better fitting the nature of the crime.
“We’re saying decriminalize, but don’t commercialize,” said Judson “Kim” Bemis, chairman of Smart Approaches to Marijuana Minnesota, one of many state affiliates of the national group.
A 15- or 16-year-old caught in possession of marijuana should not have to deal with a criminal record that could make it hard to find a job, Bemis said.
“Far too many minorities have been hassled through the marijuana laws,” he said. “Being caught with two or three marijuana gummy bears could be a felony. That’s not straight. We are advocating a graduated system. The first couple of arrests could be like a traffic ticket, not placed on someone’s record. At some point you need a stick. Three or four arrests might lead to drug court or a stiffer penalty.”
Minnesota legislation for legalizing recreational marijuana, HF 600, which passed in the state’s House of Representatives last year and its companion bill in the Senate, SF 757, would expunge criminal records of some marijuana offenses and amend marijuana-related criminal penalties. But it would not be able to curtail disproportionate arrest rates of minorities compared with whites, an issue that goes beyond marijuana legislation, Bemis said.
In Colorado, discretionary searches by the State Highway Patrol dropped by more than half after that state’s 2012 legalization of recreational marijuana, but search rates remained significantly higher for Blacks and Hispanics from 2013 through 2015, SAM’s Jones said.
Overall arrests of African Americans in Colorado actually rose from 2012 to 2018, perhaps because marijuana lowers inhibitions, cuts into the ability to make good decisions and increases encounters with police, Jones said.
Recreational marijuana shops, such as in Colorado, also tend to be disproportionality placed in areas where the demand for marijuana is higher, where there are higher rates of poverty and a greater number of alcohol outlets, indicating that when owners chose where to locate dispensaries, they followed the data to low-income and minority neighborhoods, Jones said.
The MCC’s Hamilton said the true good, rooted in justice, is equitable enforcement. To say that legalization of recreational marijuana — a removal of accountability — is a just solution to disparate enforcement among races runs counter to teachings of the Catholic Church about human flourishing, he said. “Because it implies that our society is incapable or unwilling to enforce our laws fairly and therefore the only solution is to permit vice,” he said.
Minority business development?
Results also have been disappointing in efforts to include minorities in the industry as growers, distributors and shop owners, critics say. In Illinois, which legalized recreational pot in 2019, a cannabis dispensary lottery system was revamped and expanded last July to include more “social equity applicants” after it was found no marijuana businesses were majority Black, Latino or women-owned, due to a botched scoring system.
While percentages vary state to state, across the country minorities own less than 10% of all the businesses in the marijuana industry, Bemis said. In Colorado last year, 2.9% of marijuana businesses were owned by Blacks, 7.7% by Latinos and 83.7% by whites, he said. According to U.S. Census data released in October, in 2019 approximately 18.7% of U.S. employer businesses overall were minority-owned.
Even if minority ownership increased, it is not a good business to own, unless the owner is looking to sell addiction, Bemis said. “You get repeat clientele,” he said.
Attempts to include minority ownership of marijuana-related businesses in HF 600 also would fail Minnesotans, said Bemis, 68, an entrepreneur in Minneapolis who has been involved in digital programming and marketing of addiction recovery programs.
The bill would set up grants and loans through nonprofits and other organizations to help “social equity applicants” grow, distribute and sell marijuana. Such applicants would include people living in areas where the poverty rate is 20% or more, or that experienced a disproportionately large amount of cannabis enforcement.
But starting a business costs a great deal of money. Loans and grants can quickly run out, Bemis said. Because marijuana remains illegal on the federal level, banks are not keen on getting involved, he said.
“The trouble is, they (many startups) run out of money,” he said.
In the marijuana industry, that often leaves the field to big business and private investors, he said. Large companies often take on assumed names that are hard to trace, recruit a member of a minority community to go in on the deal and then take control of the business, he said.
Bob Gilligan, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Illinois, said in the two years that the state has seen legalized recreational marijuana, he has witnessed a rise in crime, a larger black market for marijuana and other drugs, and an increase of psychosis and other mental health ailments. But with pot sales hitting $1.9 billion and total tax collections on those sales at more than $560 million, there is no political will to talk about the costs of legalization, he said.
“All of these things together are not good for society,” he said. And with the COVID-19 pandemic, people are turning to drugs and alcohol to numb the pain. “We’re just giving them another outlet,” he said. “It’s not good for the common good.”
Marijuana and Church teaching
This is the second in a four-part series on efforts to legalize recreational marijuana in Minnesota. Those efforts are opposed by the Minnesota Catholic Conference, which among other things, argues that the drug fuels addictions, exacerbates mental health problems and increases the risks of people driving under the influence. However, the move to legalize is part of a national trend that now has 19 states with recreational marijuana.
The series opened in the Oct. 14 edition of The Catholic Spirit with an article on MCC’s opposition to recreational marijuana and its neutral stance on medical marijuana, which has been legal in the state since 2014. The story also looked at some of the politics involved. A second article articulated the moral grounds for the Catholic Church’s opposition to recreational marijuana and other drugs. A third element was Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens’ April 15 address on recreational marijuana at MCC’s Catholics at the Capitol event in St. Paul. (Bishop Cozzens was installed as bishop of Crookston Dec. 6.)
Future series installments will explore ways big alcohol and tobacco companies are investing in the push to legalize marijuana, and after the 2022 legislative session, review efforts to legalize cannabis in Minnesota and what that might mean for the future.
Editor’s note: This is the second installment in a series on legalizing recreational marijuana. The first story appeared in the Oct. 14 edition.
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