Traffic searches, a longtime tool in the War on Drugs, dropped dramatically following marijuana legalization, new data reveals.
Two weeks have passed since George Floyd was killed while in the custody of Minneapolis police, sparking nationwide protests against police brutality and systemic injustice. National organizations and lawmakers have admitted that rolling back Drug War policies is an important step to fixing inequalities that exist in criminal justice.
Sen. Cory Booker noted racial imbalances in marijuana enforcement as just one explanation for the protests. California Gov. Gavin Newsom, meanwhile, described cannabis legalization as a “civil rights” issue.
That’s because, as data shows, legalizing marijuana changes the behavior of police departments. Colorado and Washington voters approved recreational cannabis in 2012 and a 2017 analysis by the Stanford Open Policing Project examined how this affected the focus of state police. Data shows that roadside searches dropped by nearly half post-legalization, with the most dramatic decrease occurring among Black and Hispanic drivers. In addition, Burlington police in Vermont released data last year that showed traffic searches dropped by 70% after the state legalized marijuana.
According to Stanford researchers, the threshold to pull over minority drivers is lower than it is for white drivers. Though traffic stops eventually dropped by more than 50% in both Colorado and Washington following legalization, that disparity between white and minority drivers remained.
“Searches where you don’t find something are really negative towards a community,” Jack McDevitt, director of Northeastern University’s Institute on Race and Justice, told NBC News. “Have a police officer search your car is really like, ‘Why are they doing this to me?’ And you get more pissed off. If you’re trying to do relationship building, it’s not a good thing to do a lot of searches.”
Roadside searches are also a known tool in the War on Drugs. Philando Castile’s death by Minnesota police started when an officer pulled him over for a busted taillight. The officer who shot Castile later said he feared for his life when he smelled “burnt marijuana” in the car.
Marijuana legalization also re-directs police attention to more serious crimes, according to a 2018 study published in Police Quarterly journal. Police clearance rates increased in Colorado and Washington after legalization in 2012, researchers found. Overall, police made more arrests for burglaries, violent crimes, property crime, and vehicular theft in both Washington and Colorado once marijuana possession arrests fell away.
The study’s authors wrote: “[I]n the absence of other compelling explanations, the current evidence suggests that legalization produced some demonstrable and persistent benefit in clearance rates, benefits we believe are associated with the marijuana legalization proponents’ prediction that legalization would positively influence police performance.”