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Two Most Talked about Marijuana Legalization Issues in Colorado: The Hype and the Reality

Art Way

The talk concerning the first state to legalize marijuana is ongoing and seemingly endless. Colorado is poster child for supporters and detractors alike. Overall, the now five year old policy is healthy and strong and opponents are clutching at straws to show a detriment. There are two issues of concern both supporters and detractors agree on for varying reasons. I’ll discuss these issues below and hopefully provide some context to both the hype and the reality.

1) Rise in Citations/Arrests for Youth of Color

In 2012, African American and Latino juveniles in the state were arrested or cited for marijuana related charges nearly 900 times in total. In 2014, that number rose to a little over 1,200 – an increase since legalization. The numbers for white juveniles were over 2,000 in each year but slightly less in 2014 compared to 2012 – a decline since legalization. Well over two thirds of all these citations/arrests took place on school (to prison?) grounds and well over 90% were for simple possession.

This specific rise in citations/arrests for juveniles of color is causing erroneous and blanket statements such as marijuana related arrests for all people of color have gone up 50% in Colorado since legalization. The reality is, as referenced above, juvenile citations/arrest for black kids went up statewide from 204 in 2012, to 305 in 2014 – a 52% increase. What many don’t know is this stat only tells part of the story.

In 2013, prosecutors across the state were directed to provide diversion and education courses for juveniles before dropping their marijuana possession charges. The primary question that presents itself now (but has proven hard to answer) is how many juveniles of color cited or arrested for possession during 2014, or after, eventually had their charges dropped? How do we hold prosecutors and stakeholders accountable to the 2013 directive spearheaded by advocates who saw this issue coming?

Overall, the most important lesson is rising or continuing juvenile arrests or citations in a legalization state is wrong. The mechanisms to provide diversion and expungement currently aren’t to be trusted. The ideal approach was provided by Prop 64 in CA. That initiative further decriminalized marijuana related charges for youth to a point where criminalization takes a complete back seat to education and community service. Similar to how most states address minors and alcohol related charges.

2) Lack of Equity and Racial Justice Provisions

When we say it’s no longer about whether to legalize but how to legalize we are referencing the interplay between legalization and broader structural racism . This is an issue that hasn’t been fully addressed at the regulatory level in Colorado because so much political capital and time has been put into simply getting off the ground in a manner that pleased the federal government. It’s rare the trailblazer gets it completely right the first time around but the time to change things in Colorado from an equitable, racial justice perspective is now.

Massachusetts and California are ensuring policies exist within their legalization frameworks to limit broader structural inequity concerns. The work in these states and Oregon have even pushed Congress towards equity and racial justice concerning legalization. Programs established to increase access to the industry, re-allocate tax revenue where most needed, remove licensing restrictions on felons, create loan assistance and education programs including the advent of micro licenses allowing individuals to operate on a smaller scale are all evident in the design and implementation of these initiatives.

Colorado needs to immediately lower barriers to the industry via equitable and racially just policies and uniformly address the youth arrests/citations issue. That said, let’s not claim these imperfections and growing pains are proof of a detrimental policy. The state has put its marijuana tax revenue to good use and despite a period of transition and likely temporary rise in arrest/citations for youth of color, legalization has truly reformed the marijuana arrests landscape for Blacks and everyone else.

It’s complex to make political fixes once a status quo has developed but it may happen sooner than you think in Colorado.

Art Way is a Senior Director for DPA’s National Criminal Justice Reform Strategy and State Director for DPA’s Colorado Office.

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