Despite legalization, a striking and sad racial disparity in weed arrests still persists.

While Colorado's marijuana boom has had little effect on overall teen use since legalization in 2014, teen minorities are being disproportionately arrested for marijuana offenses at a concerning rate.

According to a new report from the Colorado Department of Public Safety, arrests of black teens aged 10-17 increased 58 percent between 2012 and 2014, and 29 percent for Latino teens during the same period.

The overall juvenile arrest rate actually decreased by 8 percent for white teens, however, which signifies a striking difference in how they and minority teens are being targeted by police.

The vast majority of teen arrests took place in just 10 counties across Colorado, each of which had over 100 marijuana arrests in 2014. The other roughly 54 counties in the state had fewer than 25 arrests each.

So, to observe trends in minority pot arrest rates, the state report analyzed which schools in those counties specifically were suspending, expelling and arresting the most teens for weed crimes.

As for what they found?

“The drug suspension rates are lowest in schools with a smaller proportion of minorities … Schools with the highest proportion of minorities have a drug suspension rate 110 percent higher than schools with the lowest proportion of minorities," the report says.


In a separate, 2013 survey by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, it was found that while adults and teens of all races sell and use weed at very similar rates, a slightly larger percentage of black and Latino high schoolers had used pot in the past 30 days (23.6 percent). Meanwhile, 17 percent of white students had done the same.

However, even if the disparity in that study was representative for the entire state of Colorado, the weed arrest rates for minority teens wouldn't be much higher than that of whites.

The situation is equally as bad for adults in Colorado. While the state's report found that weed arrests amongst those 18 and older dropped by nearly have since legalization, the racial disparities among those arrested also grew worse. In 2014, black people were arrested and cited for pot offenses at almost three times the rate of whites. Only two years prior in 2012, black people were being arrested and charged at double the rate of whites.

As Buzzfeed reports, "Other states and cities that have decriminalized or legalized recreational marijuana use — including Massachusetts, Chicago, and Washington state — have seen a similar trend: a drop in overall arrests but persistent or increased racial disparities among those still being arrested."

However, while Colorado's racial disparities in both teen and adult pot arrests are embarrassing and unjust, they're not isolated. All across the country, minority teens and adults are arrested and incarcerated for drug offenses at wildly higher rates than whites.

According to data from the NAACP and the Sentencing Project …

  • African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites.
  • Together, African American and Hispanics comprised 58 percent of all prisoners in 2008, even though African Americans and Hispanics make up approximately one quarter of the U.S. population.
  • Five times as many whites are using drugs as African Americans, yet African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of whites.
  • African Americans represent 12 percent of the total population of drug users, but 38 percent of those arrested for drug offenses, and 59 percent of those in state prison for a drug offense.
  • African Americans serve virtually as much time in prison for a drug offense (58.7 months) as whites do for a violent offense (61.7 months).

It would be nice if Colorado could rise above that trend, but it appears we've succumbed to it as well.

However, while these numbers look pretty bad, and they are, it's important to notice that the data is from the period between 2012 and 2014. That data set does not include a full year and a half of legalized weed in Colorado, during which teen rates have reportedly fallen even more. It'll be interesting to see the 2015 and 2016 numbers on racial arrest disparity once they come out … hopefully there will be some kind of improvement, both in the overall arrest rate, and in the gap with how minorities are treated for marijuana-related offenses. Because in the end, it shouldn't matter what the color of your skin is; if you break the law, you break the law — that's that.

Cover Photo: Seth Wenig AP