Cannabis Possession Arrests

States that decriminalized or legalized marijuana significantly reduced arrest rates among both Black and White youth.

a graph of growth in different states

Read Time: 2 minutes


Black and White people ingest marijuana at a similar rate. However, Black people are four times more likely to get arrested for cannabis possession. Most of these arrests occur among Black teenagers and young adults, who face fines or jail time, and the stigma of drug conviction. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, these consequences are more harmful than the drug itself.

NORML and other organizations across the United States support reforming cannabis laws as a key step toward decreasing marijuana arrest rates. While some worry that decriminalization of marijuana will result in more people using it, research does not support these claims. In fact, decriminalization and legalization of marijuana is associated with reduced use by teenagers.

Brynn Sheehan and colleagues evaluated how different policy changes affect cannabis possession arrests. They analyzed publicly available data from January of 2000 to December of 2019 from 43 states. The researchers compared states that legalized cannabis possession, states that decriminalized it, and states that did not change their cannabis policy.

As seen in the figure, states that decriminalized or legalized marijuana significantly reduced arrest rates among both Black and White youth. The reduction in arrest rates was also greater for states that had legalized marijuana. States that had not implemented a policy change showed an increase in arrest rates for Black youth while the rates for White youth remained consistent.

In Massachusetts, a state where adult use marijuana is legal, if people under 21 are found in possession of marijuana they face a non-criminal citation and a fine. If they are under 18, they are also required to participate in a drug awareness program. If they fail to pay the fine or complete the course, they can still face criminal proceedings.

Marijuana remains the most commonly used illegal substance in the United States. If marijuana causes harm, it should not be mediated by racial inequities in the criminal justice system.

Databyte via Brynn E. Sheehan, Richard A. Grucza, Andrew D. Plunk, Association of racial disparity of cannabis possession arrests among adults and youths with statewide cannabis decriminalization and legalization. JAMA Health Forum, 2021.