For every type of marijuana offense — such as buying, selling, cultivating and possessing — black people are more likely to be arrested than would be expected based on their share of the population, according to a study released Thursday by the Cannabis Control Commission.
The study does not suggest why this is the case. But researcher Samantha Doonan noted that the literature shows that “blacks and Latinos are more likely to experience drug-related legal consequences compared to whites, despite similar use rates.”
Under state law, the Cannabis Control Commission is tasked with making sure that communities that were disproportionately harmed by enforcement of marijuana laws are now encouraged to participate in the legal industry. The commission is collecting baseline data, which will eventually be used to track how racial disparities change now that marijuana is legal in Massachusetts.
“These data … were not new. They were stark,” said Cannabis Control Commission Chairman Steven Hoffman. “They reinforced my perspective on the challenge and the wrongs we’re trying to rectify.”
The data shows major racial disparities.
Blacks represent 5% to 7% of the Massachusetts population, based on census data from 2000 and 2010.
According to a national data set, which does not include information from Boston and state police, blacks were arrested for 14% of marijuana crimes in Massachusetts between 2000 and 2013.
The most common marijuana offense is possession, followed by sales. Blacks made up 22% of arrests for marijuana sales and 13% for marijuana possession.
Hispanics made up 6% to 10% of the Massachusetts population during that time, but were 12% of marijuana-related arrests. Hispanics were arrested for 19% of marijuana sales violations and 11% of possession violations.
Those arrested for marijuana violations were almost always — 87% of the time — men.
Data from the state and Boston police reflect similar disparities, with blacks making up a disproportionate share of marijuana-related arrests, compared to their prevalence in the population. Hispanics were disproportionally represented in state police arrests. Data on Hispanics was not available for the Boston police.
The only category where whites were disproportionally likely to be arrested was for cultivating and manufacturing marijuana.
Overall, the data show there was a sharp drop in arrests for marijuana possession after Massachusetts voters decriminalized small amounts of marijuana on the ballot in 2008.
In 2008, the federal database tracked nearly 5,600 arrests for marijuana possession in Massachusetts, compared to 750 arrests in 2009 (not including arrests by the Boston and state police). There were only 230 arrests for marijuana possession in 2017, when it became legal to possess up to two ounces.
The number of arrests for sales has fluctuated widely since 2000, ranging from around 400 to 1,200 arrests a year.
Doonan and Cannabis Control Commission Research Director Julie Johnson stressed that there are gaps in the data. While there is data on arrests, there is no easy way to track prosecutions, incarcerations and sanctions because there is no central database. There is no data on enforcement of civil penalties — the fine levied on people who possessed less than one ounce of marijuana when it was no longer a criminal offense, before it was fully legalized.