Today the ACLU released a report showing that Black people in Rhode Island are 3.3 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession despite comparable marijuana usage rates among the two racial groups. Similar arrest disparities were documented in a 2013 report issued by the ACLU, but they have gotten worse, not better, over the past decade. The report also shows that the racial disparities are even more pronounced, and way above the national average, outside Providence County. The findings of the new research are especially disturbing given Rhode Island’s marijuana reform over the last decade in decriminalizing arrests for possession of small amounts of the drug.

The report issued by the National ACLU, A Tale of Two Countries: Racially Targeted Arrests in the Era of Marijuana Reform, examined nationwide marijuana arrests. The report shows that Rhode Island’s racial disparities in marijuana possession arrests are only slightly better than the nationwide average, where Black arrests are 3.64 times more likely than for whites.

Key findings of the new report include:

  • On the positive side, marijuana possession arrests accounted for 18% of all drug arrests in Rhode Island, a downward trend due to the decriminalization of possession of small amounts of marijuana in 2012.
  • Despite this downward trend in arrests, Black people are 3.3 times more likely to be arrested for possession than white people across the state. This is an increase since the last report, where the rate was 2.6.
  • Racial disparities in arrest rates are especially high outside the state’s urban core. In Washington county, Black people were almost nine times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people. Extremely high racial disparities were also present in Newport County (8.57x) and Kent County (6.1x). These county disparities are also greater than reported in the ACLU’s 2013 study. (Due to insufficient data, statistics were not available for Bristol County.)

Steven Brown, executive director of the ACLU of RI, said today: “Rhode Island enforcement of marijuana laws continues to disproportionately target Black communities and entangles them in the criminal legal system at a tremendous social and economic cost. The disparate arrest rates between Blacks and whites, particularly in those areas of the state with small African-American populations, remain shocking and indefensible. Worse, this is happening even as the state gives serious consideration to the drug’s legalization.”

The National ACLU report provides a series of recommendations for state and local officials to address this problem. Among the recommendations that the ACLU of Rhode Island says must be considered here:

  • Approval of legislative proposals to legalize marijuana in the state.
  • Ensuring that individuals with criminal drug records can participate in the legal marijuana marketplace. Current laws governing the operation of medical marijuana facilities, for example, impose unnecessary barriers on participation by individuals with past criminal drug records.
  • Eliminating collateral consequences that result from marijuana convictions, such as restrictions in employment and occupational licensing.
  • Requiring police departments to examine their marijuana enforcement policies and correct the practices that are leading to such disparate enforcement.

The full report is available here.
A summary of Rhode Island data is available here.