New Report Analyzes Racial Disparities in Marijuana Policing

New Orleans, LA—The Vera Institute of Justice today released a report that examines racial disparities in marijuana arrests in New Orleans, outlines the impact of reforms the city has put in place to date, and identifies remaining issues in marijuana policing.

Although people of different races self-report using marijuana at similar rates nationally, black people are disproportionately arrested for marijuana offenses in New Orleans. While some states have legalized marijuana in recent years, the consequences of marijuana possession in Louisiana remain severe—under state law, repeated convictions are punishable by multi-year prison sentences.

Racial Disparity in Marijuana Policing in New Orleans analyzes arrest data from 2010 through 2015. It examines arrests for marijuana possession with intent to distribute—a felony offense—and simple possession with no intent to distribute (a misdemeanor for first- and second-time offenses, and a felony for subsequent offenses). Vera found that 85 percent of those arrested for all simple marijuana possession offenses are black, even though black people make up only 60 percent of the city’s population. It also found that black residents make up 94 percent of people arrested for felony simple possession.

“Racial disparity in policing—regardless of the causes—mean that black members of our community too often face harsh and destabilizing criminal justice system involvement,” said Jon Wool, director of Vera’s New Orleans office and co-author of the report. “As we enact policy changes to move away from our over-use of jail as a response to minor crimes, it’s vital that we understand the racial impact of police and detention practices. This report is an important step towards mapping the full scope of adverse consequences of marijuana policing. We hope it will help guide state and local policymakers toward further improvements, and inspire other jurisdictions to examine their own practices.”

As part of efforts to reduce the city’s jail size in recent years, the New Orleans Police Department now typically responds to marijuana possession offenses by issuing summonses—which allow a person to return to court without immediately being taken into custody—rather than using custodial arrests, which lead to jail time. This shift, which took place in 2011, has helped reduce the impact of criminal justice involvement for marijuana possession. Although summonses have been issued to black people and others at virtually the same rate for eligible offenses, black people are still more likely to have a police encounter make them eligible for arrest or summons. A deeper understanding of the adverse consequences of marijuana policing, overall, is needed in order to fully address its disparate impact on black individuals, families, and communities.

The report found that in New Orleans:

  • Racial disparities are greater in marijuana arrests than in arrests overall.  
  • While self-reported use of marijuana is similar across races and black residents are 60 percent of the city, 85 percent of those arrested for all simple marijuana possession offenses are black and 94 percent of people arrested for felony simple possession are black.  
  • Although there are persistent racial disparities in the frequency of police responses to marijuana, officers used summonses instead of arrests at the same rates across races. From 2012 to 2015, police issued summonses for black and white people alike in approximately 70 percent of instances of first-offense marijuana possession.  
  • People arrested for felony marijuana possession spend an average of 14 days in jail pretrial at an average cost of more than $1,400 per person.  
  • Of the people arrested and charged by a police officer with felony marijuana possession in 2014 and 2015, 35 percent did not end up being charged by the district attorney with felony possession—they either had their cases refused or were subsequently charged with only misdemeanor possession.  
  • In order to decrease the disparate harm inflicted on black residents, city policymakers should uncover and mitigate the root causes of racial disparity in all police practices.

Vera's work in New Orleans began in 2006, when the City Council invited Vera to assess the criminal justice system and propose reforms as part of post-Katrina recovery efforts. In partnership with local system actors, city leaders, and community organizations, Vera’s New Orleans office is working to reduce unnecessary detention in the local jail through research, data analysis, and innovative, collaborative projects such as New Orleans Pretrial Services.