From the Pacific Northwest to the Deep South, drug legalization won big nationwide on Election Day. Under the first state law of its kind, people in Oregon soon won’t be arrested for possessing small amounts of drugs including heroin, meth and cocaine. In New Jersey, Arizona, South Dakota and Montana, voters joined 11 other states and the District of Columbia in legalizing recreational marijuana. Washington D.C. passed an initiative to make mushrooms and other natural psychedelics the lowest possible enforcement priority. Even Mississippi legalized medical marijuana.
After months of global protests over racism in policing, advocates behind many of these campaigns focused their messaging on racial disparities in drug-law enforcement. In New Jersey, a social media ad explaining how a marijuana arrest could ruin someone’s life centered images of young Black men and women. Activists in Oregon pointed to a statewide study that found drug convictions for Black and Native people would drop by nearly 95 percent under the state’s decriminalization law.
Yet despite these electoral successes, it remains unclear what effect the new measures will have for communities of color, who have long been disproportionately targeted in the war on drugs. Even as many states move toward legalization, drug-related violations were the most frequent cause for arrest in the U.S. in 2018. Nearly 40 percent of those arrests are for marijuana possession alone, according to federal data. Black people make up 27 percent of drug arrests, but only 13 percent of the country.
Even in states that have already enacted more lax drug laws, racial disparities in enforcement didn’t disappear. An April study from the ACLU found that “in every state that has legalized or decriminalized marijuana possession, Black people are still more likely to be arrested for possession than White people.” Being caught with large amounts of marijuana,