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April 20, 2020


Louisville, Ky. – Today the American Civil Liberties Union released a new report that showed Black people are 9.4 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession in Kentucky, despite comparable national marijuana usage rates. The report found Kentucky ranks second in the nation for the largest racial disparities in arrests for marijuana possession. Nationally, Blacks were 3.64 times more likely to be arrested than whites. Although the total number of people arrested for marijuana possession has decreased in the past decade, nationally, law enforcement still made 6.1 million such arrests over that period, and the racial disparities in arrest rates remain in every state.

The report, A Tale of Two Countries: Racially Targeted Arrests in the Era of Marijuana Reform, details marijuana possession arrests from 2010 to 2018 and updates our unprecedented national report published in 2013, The War on Marijuana in Black and White. The disturbing findings of this new research show that despite several states having reformed marijuana policy over the last decade, far too much has remained unchanged when it comes to racial disparities in arrests. Key findings include:

  • Across the U.S., law enforcement made more than 6.1 million marijuana-related arrests from 2010 to 2018. In Kentucky alone, there were 7,600 marijuana arrests in 2018, the vast majority of which were for possession. In 2018, marijuana possession arrests accounted for 20 percent of all drug arrests in Kentucky.
  • Nationally, in 2018, law enforcement made more marijuana arrests than for all violent crimes combined.
  • Despite legalization in a number of states, it is not clear that marijuana arrests are trending downward nationally. National arrest rates have actually risen in the past few years, with almost 100,000 more arrests in 2018 than 2015.
  • A Black person in Kentucky is 9.4 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person. In fact, Kentucky ranks 2nd in the nation for largest racial disparities in marijuana possession arrests. 
  • Although the overwhelming majority of Kentucky counties have racial disparities, Kenton, Graves, Daviess, Hopkins and McCracken have the largest disparities in marijuana arrests. In those counties Black Kentuckians are 14.36-7.8 times more likely to face arrest over marijuana possession.
  • Overall, these disparities have not improved. Nationally, a Black person is 3.64 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person, even though Black and white people use marijuana at similar rates. In ten states, Blacks were more than 5 times more likely to be arrested.
  • Overall, in states that legalized marijuana, arrest rates decreased after legalization while racial disparities remained.

A Tale of Two Countries: Racially Targeted Arrests in the Era of Marijuana Reform comes at a time when the criminal legal system is overwhelmed by the COVID-19 public health crisis that demands expedited decarcercal action to safeguard the lives of those incarcerated in and employed by jails and prisons. The reforms recommended in this report provide a road map for reducing marijuana arrests and criminalization as governors, prosecutors, judges, and other stakeholders across the country grapple with the harms presented by the public health crisis and take steps to release people from jails and prisons. 

“Kentucky continues to vigorously enforce marijuana laws, which disproportionately target Black communities and entangle hundreds of thousands of people in the criminal legal system every year at a tremendous cost,” says Keturah Herron a policy strategist at the ACLU of Kentucky. “As a matter of racial justice and sound public health policy, every state in the country must legalize marijuana with racial equity at the foundation of such reform.”

To combat the racial disparities rampant in marijuana-related arrests, the ACLU of Kentucky is calling not only for an end to racialized policing, but also for full legalization of marijuana use and possession and specific measures to ensure legalization efforts are grounded in racial justice. This includes pressing for passage of the MORE Act, which aims to correct historical injustices of the failed War on Drugs that has terrorized Black communities and decriminalizes marijuana at the federal level, reassesses marijuana convictions, and invests in economically disadvantaged communities. 

Learn more and download the report, view state- and county-level data, and use the interactive data visualization tool.

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