This month’s issue of Maryland Leaf covers the broad topic of “Leisure” and focuses on the activities enjoyed by people during recreation while using cannabis. This issue explores the activities and classic cultural references that have spread due to the broad, popular appeal of cannabis around the world. But as I sat down to recount the new and varying ways that people are using Cannabis to complement their leisure and recreational activities, I could not stop thinking about the tragic news concerning the shooting death of Mr. Ahmaud Arbery while jogging in Brunswick, Georgia. While Mr. Arbery’s death had nothing to do with cannabis, it nevertheless reinforced, once again, how the lens of race contorts everything – even the pleasure of leisure activities such as jogging.
Despite the federal prohibition of cannabis as a controlled substance, thirty-three (33) states have now passed laws legalizing the medical use of cannabis, while fourteen (14) states have passed laws permitting access to cannabis with limited THC content or cannabidiol (CBD) only — a non-psychoactive component of the cannabis plant. Eleven (11) states have legalized the adult use of cannabis altogether, while fifteen (15) states have decriminalized the possession of small amounts of cannabis. In the US, 327 million people live in such states. Conversely, the outright criminal prohibition of cannabis now exists in only two states — Idaho and South Dakota. There are only 2.7 million people left who now live in a state that retains criminal penalties for the simple possession of cannabis.
With nearly 327 million Americans living in a state where cannabis is consumed legally, medically, or without penalty for a personal possession amount, it would be reasonable to predict that arrests would be on the decline nationally and the disparity in the arrest rates amongst the races would be disappearing. Unfortunately, old habits are hard to break. While arrests for simple marijuana possession (as defined under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970) have decreased 18% since 2010, the national trend line in arrests appears to be on the rise again. In fact, there were more arrests for simple marijuana possession in 2018 than 2015. In all 50 states, black individuals are more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than their white counterparts, including some states where black people were almost 10 times more likely to be arrested. In 31 states, racial disparities amongst the arrest rates were even larger and more pronounced in 2018 than they were in 2010.
Earlier this year, the ACLU published a follow-up to its landmark 2013 report on racial disparities in marijuana arrests in the United States called “A Tale of Two Countries: Racially Targeted Arrests in the Era of Marijuana Reform.” In the report, the authors found that nationally black individuals were 3.64 times more likely than white individuals to be arrested for simple marijuana possession even though usage rates amongst the various races were virtually identical.
When you drill down into the fine details, Maryland’s cannabis arrest numbers, for example, contains both good news and bad news. On the one hand, Maryland now records one of the lower disparities amongst the states between the arrest rate of white people and black people per 100,000 individuals (ranking 44th). And Maryland’s rate of disparity has come down since 2010, when Maryland had the Fourth highest marijuana arrest rate in the Country. For the bad news, Black people make up over 30% of Maryland’s population, yet they make up 52% of the simple possession marijuana arrests. Maryland still arrests black people for Cannabis crimes at a rate 2.1 times more frequently than white people.
In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” written during the Birmingham Campaign in 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” He wrote that letter in response to other clergy members who urged him to give up his non-violent resistance campaign throughout the South and let the fight for civil rights continue in the courts and not in the streets. King argued that not only was civil disobedience justified in the face of unjust laws, but it was necessary and even patriotic.
I ask that anyone reading this column, engaged in a leisurely activity such as reading this fine publication, and enjoying cannabis, remember how far the United States has come in the recognition of cannabis in this Country. But also remember how far we need to go to make sure that every American, regardless of race, can enjoy their version of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.