Are cannabis laws made to be broken?

Commentary by R.E. Graswich

Millions of California voters will make impulsive decisions on 17 statewide ballot initiatives come Nov. 8. As always with direct democracy, there’s no way to know how many citizens will stop and seriously consider what their votes mean.

In the case of Prop. 64, which legalizes, regulates and taxes adult-use, recreational cannabis, a yes vote means adding 62 pages of law to the State Constitution. That means 62 pages of rules to follow — or ignore at your own peril.

The potential consequence of breaking those rules was demonstrated recently by the Drug Policy Alliance, which issued a report detailing how law enforcement agencies in California accumulated nearly 500,000 arrests for cannabis over the last decade.

In 2015 alone, California cops racked up 8,866 felony arrests for marijuana — and that was a relatively low number, considering that law enforcement agencies in the Golden State averaged 14,000 felony cannabis arrests between 2006 and 2015.

The Drug Policy Alliance data crunch serves as a reality check — a reminder that even though cannabis is legal, many people still wind up in handcuffs over it. Those 465,873 arrests from 2006 to 2015 came during a period of liberalization, 10 years after California voters passed Prop. 215, the Compassionate Use Act, which legalized medical cannabis. 

Jolene Forman, an attorney with the Drug Policy Alliance, summed up the reality when she said, “While many people believe that marijuana is essentially legal in California, data shows that thousands continue to be arrested annually for marijuana activities.”

And the data tells us something even more troubling about those thousands of people placed under arrest — they are disproportionately people of color, especially African Americans and Latinos. It’s not that they use cannabis more than their white sisters and brothers. They don’t. They just wind up in handcuffs more often.

The data is especially disturbing relevant to African Americans and their relationship with police. Black residents are five times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana felonies, and twice as likely as whites to be arrested for cannabis misdemeanors. 

Latinos have a 45 percent better chance than whites to be arrested for marijuana misdemeanors and are 26 percent more likely to face felony cannabis allegations.

As dismal as they are, the statistics reveal how much work remains to be done to bring cannabis out from the shadows and into mainstream California culture, which is chief among the goals being promoted by backers of Prop. 64. 

Clearly, the arrest numbers go well beyond the obvious bad actors in the cannabis world — drug cartels who destroy public lands and wildlife and violently protect their illegal businesses.

While many Prop. 64 promoters believe the adult-use initiative will significantly lower the massive numbers of arrests for cannabis in California, the same could have been said 20 years ago about Prop. 215.

Twenty years after the Compassionate Use Act, the only fact we know for certain about Prop. 64 is this — if it passes, police will have a new 62-page enforcement tool filled with rules to regulate and tax adult-use cannabis. Each page includes handy reasons to arrest people.

California Marijuana Arrest Report from Drug Policy Alliance