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Author: The Brown JPPE Design Team
Mass incarceration has disproportionally impacted communities of color over the past 41 years. Indeed, policies that are currently operating as a result of the “War on Drugs” have created large racial disparities in drug convictions. For an example, despite research suggesting that Blacks and Whites use cannabis at similar rates, Blacks have been convicted at a higher rate. Many proponents of criminal justice reform argue that just as certain policies have led to the creation of racial disparities in drug convictions, the creation of new policies and laws might also be able to reduce or eliminate these disparities. For this research project, I use longitudinal data of all Washington State convictions between 2000 and 2015 and ordinary least squares regression analysis to examine the association between the 2012 decriminalization of cannabis in Washington State, I-502, and in drug conviction rates by race. I also include a series of controls including: year of conviction, sex, county, and prior convictions to test the robustness of this association. In particular, I am interested in understanding if racial disparities in drug convictions decreased post the implementation of cannabis legalization in Washington state. My results suggest that cannabis legalization leads to decreased disparities in drug conviction rates for Blacks, albeit, disparities still exist. The overall lower conviction rates for all types of drugs may have been produced by the lessening of police contact with Blacks in Washington state for suspicion of cannabis possession.
There has been a great amount of research analyzing racial disparities in drug arrests (Beckett, Nyrop, Pfingst and Bowen 2005; Kutateladze, Andiloro, Johnson and Spohn 2014). Findings show Black people have disproportionate arrest rates to that of Whites. In fact “Blacks are 3.73 times more likely than Whites to be arrested for marijuana possession” (ACLU 2013). These statistics are surprising given that Blacks and Whites use cannabis at a comparable rate (ACLU 2013). Hispanic communities are also impacted by racial disparities in drug crimes. This group is harder to measure quantitatively because some agencies group Hispanic or Latinos/as with Whites. This causes the White conviction rate to increase, thus deflating the racial disparity present. In New York City where Latino arrest rates are available, “Latinos are arrested at 2.5 times the rates of Whites for marijuana possession” (ACLU 2013).
Richard Nixon’s declaration for the “War on Drugs” that began in the 1970’s has had many negative latent affects in communities of color and has contributed greatly to racial disproportionality in mass incarceration (Sharp 1994). This continued on as “arrest for marijuana possession… accounted for nearly 80 percent of the growth in drug arrest in the 1990s” (Alexander 2010). Images within media have reinforced the link between people of color and their involvement with drugs (Bullock, Wyche and Williams 2001). These socially constructed depictions have influenced prejudices and stereotypes which in turn create implicit biases. These biases have been shown to have profound effects on police enforcement tactics and decision making (Levinson 2007). With Blacks being disproportionally convicted for cannabis related offenses, this disrupts many areas of life including family, employment opportunities, housing, and well-being (Massey 2007).
As of recent, cannabis has been highly debated as a substance that could be legalized for medical and/or recreational purposes (Coulkins, Kilmer, Kleiman, MacCoun, Midgette, Oglesby, Paucula and Reuter 2015). The federal government has yet to lift the national prohibition of cannabis but many states have begun to revise their laws regarding cannabis. There are currently 23 states, U.S. territories of Guam, and Puerto Rico that have passed laws to legalize medical cannabis. There are only four states and the District of Colombia that have legalized recreational use as well; these states include Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington (Guttmannova, Lee, Kilmer, Fleming, Rhew, Kosterman and Larimer 2016). With cannabis being decriminalized in these states, this may have profuse positive outcomes for people of color. Policing would be reduced for cannabis use and possession within these states. Blacks and Hispanics in these areas may be subject to less convictions by police because of the nature of the fledgling laws.
Currently, police across the nation have the discretion to stop and search people under “reasonable suspicion” that an individual may be in possession of illegal drugs (Yankah 2011). Under so called “Terry” stops police officers are allowed to use the notion of reasonable suspicion to stop and frisk individuals (Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 1968). Such inquires frequently rely on police officers’ own intuition. Scholars have suggested that this policing is not evenly distributed among neighborhoods and across socioeconomic statuses. To be more specific, racially and ethnically diverse areas may be subject to over policing while predominantly White neighborhoods may be more likely to be under policed (Beckett, Nyrop and Pfingst 2006). Therefore, more police enforcement in communities of color will lead to more stops and searches among people of color. These outdoor drug busts may lead to a disproportionate increase in convictions for Blacks and Hispanics. It is important to note that stops and searches that yield no results for the police may lead to continued harassment and embarrassment for members of the community due to the “War or Drugs”.
In this paper, I will analyze latent outcomes of the legalization of cannabis. More specifically, I will examine racial disproportionality in drug conviction pre and post the legalization of cannabis for recreational use in King County and Washington state. I expect to find reductions in racial disproportionality in drug convictions post cannabis legalization at the county and state level.
History of Cannabis in the United States and Its Links to Race/Ethnicity
Some scholars suggest that cannabis was first brought to the United States in the beginning of the 1600s. The Jamestown settlers primarily used this plant in hemp production and cultivation until around 1850 (Anderson, Hansen and Rees 2013). The use for hemp ranged from clothing, oil, and eatable nuts. Subsequently following the end of hemp cultivation was the use of hemp for medicinal purposes. The use of herbal medicine did not last very long. As the alcohol prohibition gained support in the 1850s, so did the outlawing of cannabis. However, this did not necessarily happen out fear of potential negative effects of the drug, such as addiction, psychological, and physiological damage. But, instead the prohibition on cannabis developed as a result of the anti-minority feeling (Bonnie and Whitebread 1970). Inciardi (1981) in a social constructionist analysis of newspapers about cannabis during the late 1800s and early 1900s shows that headlines negatively linked cannabis with communities of color. For example the title “Mexican Family Go Insane,” appeared in the New York Times in 1927. This particular article detailed how a widow and her four children accidently ate cannabis as part of the vegetables for dinner. In the neighbors account, they described hearing “crazed laughter” and rushed to the house to see the entire family “insane”. The doctors thus said that there would be no hope for the mother and children, they would be insane for the rest of their lives.
These early depictions linking race and drugs have lasting effects on media consumers. For example, results in a study done in 1995, which asked respondents to imagine what a typical drug user looks like. Analysis indicates that 95% of the respondents thought of an African American person (Burston, Jones and Robertson-Saunders 1995). The acceptability of illegal substance tended to rely on the social position of the consumers (H. Skolnick and Dombrink 1978). The perceived deviance of cannabis intensified once linked with racial/ethnic minorities. Whites were seen as upper class and angelic. People of color were paired with a lower social class, at times considered non-human in the early 1900s. This helps explain the overstated deviance of cannabis. The deviance also increased when the effects were dramatized and exaggerated. In 1936, the American Journal of Nursing said that a cannabis user may “suddenly turn with murderous violence upon whomever is nearest to him. He will turn amuck with knife, axe, gun, or anything else that is close at hand, and will kill or maim without any reason" (Musto 1991). Articles such as these from professionals are an example of the control around cannabis use and how it was perceived in the general public.
The first prohibition of recreational cannabis use was passed in 1913 by California. By the year 1936, the rest of the 47 states decided to do the same (Anderson, Hansen and I. Rees 2013). In the years to come, significant monetary and confinement penalties were imposed for distributing or growing the banned substance. For instance, possessing one joint (cannabis cigarette) in Arizona could lead to up to 10 years in prison with a fine of $50,000 (Inciardi 1981). These policies led to immense consequences for the consumer including the label of felon with a stigma that restricted occupational attainment and included hefty incarceration time and large monetary sanctions. Policies and laws such as these became monolithic because “those who have actively promoted these laws, the moral entrepreneurs of drug legislation, have relied on racial slurs and allusions to bolster their arguments for criminal controls” (Provine 2007).
In 1970, cannabis was classified as a Schedule I substance along with heroin and LSD. For a substance to be listed as a Schedule I drug, it must not be accepted for medical use, have a high potential for abuse, and to be considered one of the most dangerous drugs that can cause psychological and physical dependence (United States Drug Enforcement Administration 2015). As time moved on, groups began to consider cannabis for medicinal purposes. The Food and Drug Administration began to allow cannabis for medicaluse in 1978. The number of medical cannabis patients flourished and California eventually passed the Compassionate Use Act in 1996 to allow for personal use of the plant (N. Yankah 2011). Two years after, Washington state passed Initiative 692 titled Washington State Medical Use of Marijuana Act (Washington State Medical Association). This allowed for the growing, possession, sale, and use of cannabis for medical patients.
Cannabis Laws in King County and Washington State and Implications for 2012
As Seattle is the most populated city in King County and thus Washington state, I will give emphasis on their policies as the city will have the most influence per this discussion. In 2003, Seattle, Washington voters passed the Marijuana Law Enforcement or Initiative 75. This initiative required all cannabis offenses for adult personal use to be the lowest priority for the Seattle Police Department (SPD) (Atherly and Baird 2014). This change in the Seattle municipal code was a huge step towards decriminalization of cannabis in Washington state (Seattle, Washington Municipal code 12A.20.060)
Seattle’s massive drug market has been analyzed and researched during these years to understand if there are disparities among race and ethnicities in drug convictions. Katherine Beckett demonstrates that Seattle is unique in many ways. During the 2000s, Seattle was estimated to have the fourth largest drug market in the country. The predominately White city has a White population of about 70% and 8% Black population. Despite the low proportion of Blacks, during a 28-month investigation in Seattle, Black people represented 51.1% of drug violation arrest (Beckett, Nyrop, Pfingst and Bowen 2005).
Beckett et. al (2005) attribute most of these arrests to the focus on crack cocaine by the SPD. This may be due to the fact that crack cocaine has been represented through media as a “Black” drug (Kutateladze, Andiloro, Johnson and Spohn 2014). Another reason for the high number of arrest is explained by the location of the drug market. Beckett et. al suggested that the SPD tended to focus on racially diverse outdoor drug markets, such as Downtown Seattle, compared to indoor and/or outdoor White drug markets, such as a neighborhood named Capitol Hill (Beckett, Nyrop and Pfingst 2006). Previous research on Seattle’s drug market indicates that Blacks and Hispanics do not necessarily use or sell at higher rates than Whites, however, the SPD tended to focus on people of color. These results of racial disparity are consistent with other states as well. New York data shows that there is not just disproportionate percentages in possession/delivery arrest, but Blacks and Hispanics are also more likely than Whites to be arrested for smoking cannabis in public, cannabis misdemeanor sales, and to spend more time in jail or prison for cannabis offenses (Golub, D. Johnson and Dunlap 2007).
On November 6th, 2012, Washington Initiative 502 was approved by a mojory vote (Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board 2015). The cannabis reform has many different components that took over the course of a year to be fully in effect. The passing of I 502 legalized the recreational use of cannabis for individuals 21 and older. A 21 year old may possess up to one ounce of usable cannabis, seven grams of cannabis concentrates/extracts, 16 ounces of cannabis infused in a solid form, up to 72 ounces of cannabis infused in liquid form, and also paraphernalia related to cannabis. Only cannabis producers, processors, and retailers with a license are permitted to distribute cannabis.
According to many scholars, people of color—primarily Blacks and Hispanics—are being convicted disproportionately for drugs. Since cannabis is legal in the state of Washington, I want to first investigate if the legalization has had a significant impact on the amount of drug convictions for people of color. Second, I will examine how much of an impact having a prior conviction makes on one’s probability of being convicted of a drug offense for each race and ethnicity. This is done by first illustrating drug conviction rates and subsequently followed by drug convictions on the condition that the offender has a prior conviction. I also compare the results from King County to Washington as a whole. Lastly, I have computed multivariate logistical regressions to analyze the likelihood of being convicted for a drug offense in Washington state and King County. There have been reports that show cannabis-related arrests and convictions have decreased 81% between 2011 and 2014 (Drug Policy Alliance 2015). There may be racial/ethnic differences and I look to contextualize them. Subsequently, I will examine the association between the 2012 legalization of cannabis in Washington state and drug conviction rates between different racial/ethnic groups.