Racial disparities persist in arrests, even after decriminalization efforts

Denver and Philadelphia used different approaches toward cannabis decriminalization and legalization but both still led to disproportionate arrests of Black people: a report from the Vera Institute

We go to the Vera Institute of Justice for this week’s study, “Reducing Policing’s Footprint?” by Mary Fleck and Aaron Stagoff-Belfort.

The Vera Institute of Justice examines the relationship between decriminalization and legalization of marijuana, arrests and racial disparities using Philadelphia and Denver as two examples. Retail sale and possession of up to one ounce of cannabis was legalized in Colorado in December 2012. In June 2014, Philadelphia started the process of decriminalizing marijuana possession.


  • Black people were 66% of all arrests in 2018 despite being 42% of the population.

  • White people consisted of 33% of arrests but are 41% of the population.

  • Black people made up 80% of the arrests for marijuana-related offenses in 2018.

  • Black people in Philadelphia were arrested in 2018 at 4.03 times the rate of white people for marijuana-related offenses.

  • 73% of people arrested for disorderly conduct were Black in 2018, an 11% increase from 2015.

  • The only two categories with no substantial racial disparity were sex work and public drunkenness.


  • Racial disparities for possession and sale of marijuana decreased between 2014 and 2018.

  • Black people made up 26% of arrests in 2018 despite only being 9% of Denver’s population.

  • White people made up 71% of arrests and 77% of Denver’s population.

  • The arrest rate for all offenses was 3.05x higher for Black people than white people in 2018, an increase from 2.89 in 2014.

Read the full study here.

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