Marijuana Legalization: How Local Communities Can Band Together to Reduce Pot Arrests


A recent ACLU report revealed black Americans are almost four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white Americans. These differences persist despite comparable usage rates between both populations. In two Alabama counties (Morgan and Pike), black people represent 12 and 37% of the population but 100% of all marijuana possession arrests.

*Arrest Rates are per 100,000 - Graphic from

I initially assumed that beyond our racially biased war on marijuana, our justice system also had a conservative, southern Red State problem. However, after further inspection, it became clear my assumption was flawed. In fact, the five greatest arrest rate disparities were in places where President Obama enjoyed comfortable margins of victory in 2008 and 2012.

Table from

I share my experience of hasty conclusion-jumping to illustrate how there is no simple way to explain these inequities. Current drug laws, targeted law enforcement practices, and misguided district attorney priorities each contribute to the Disproportionate Minority Contact (DMC) within our justice system. DMC is particularly harmful for juveniles who are often court-involved on marijuana charges by their preteens. 

Though the ACLU report presents strong policy recommendations to address DMC through marijuana arrests, we can also learn from smaller programs across the country. The Department of Justice provides a database of successful DMC reduction strategies that can serve as a roadmap for local communities ready to make change. None of these programs represent a solution to the DMC that informs biased marijuana arrests in Morgan County, Alabama or Dubuque County, Iowa. However, these strategies can offer guidance to advocates looking to promote reform locally without reinventing the wheel.

In Miami-Dade County, the police department, court system, and juvenile services collaborated to create a Civil Citation Initiative to reduce first-time juvenile misdemeanor arrests. These youth have the opportunity to participate in programs that offer relevant interventions and services without experiencing the stigma of arrest. A 2007 survey of civil citation data showed that 95% of civil citations were issued to minority youth. Under older systems, these youth would be arrested and enter the court system.  Since its inception, the program has contributed to a 15% reduction in arrests and court system referrals.

Wayne County, Michigan uses a similar diversion model managed by the prosecutor’s office in Detroit. The Course Correct diversion program connects youth and families with available services in the community as an alternative to arrest. After an initial study, just 7.7% of 1,017 youth became court-involved within one year after completion of the program.

The ACLU report provides a roadmap for amending laws and justice system protocols that unfairly target black Americans. However, its recommendations will require elected officials to spend political capital to implement sweeping, important changes. Solving the racial inequities behind marijuana arrests will require multiple strategies, strong policy, and political will. For advocates frustrated the slow pace of change in legislative and executive branches of government, local DMC reduction strategies can represent another path forward.