What are the Racial Trends in Cannabis Use After Legalization?

After legalization, cannabis consumption rises among white people, but not Black people, a new study led by Columbia University researchers found. 

The researchers juxtapose this finding against existing data that show that, after legalization, Black people remain more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession, writing that, “as one of the stated goals of cannabis legalization is to combat racial inequalities in cannabis enforcement, it is critical to examine patterns of cannabis use in the context of persistent racial and ethnic disparities in cannabis arrests and incarceration.” The study was published Monday in JAMA Network Open.  

The cross-sectional study, which used data from the National Surveys of Drug Use and Health between the years 2008 and 2017, in states where cannabis was legal for adult use, had two major findings. First, researchers did not see a rise in cannabis consumption at all among young people aged twelve to twenty and this was true across all racial and ethnic groups. 

Second, researchers did see increases in use only “among certain social demographic subgroups, but not the ones that are usually marginalized for marijuana possession,” lead author Silvia Martins, also an epidemiology professor at Columbia, told Cannabis Wire

In other words, after legalization, cannabis use did increase among white people and Hispanic people, but did not rise among Black people. “These are the people that are targeted for arrest for cannabis possession. And this has to change. Even though I’m not a policymaker, I understand that this is something that needs to change,” Martins said. 

This research comes at a time when criminal justice and equity priorities are major sticking points during cannabis legalization discussions, at the state and federal levels. A report from the American Civil Liberties Union, which was updated in 2020, found that racial disparities in cannabis arrests persist even after legalization. 

Martins pointed out that people who are against and/or adult use legalization are often worried about two things: a rise in youth use, and an uptick in cannabis use disorder in the general population. Results from Martins’ study show that that’s not the case. 

While Martins’ research was quantitative, she said that more qualitative studies are needed to get at the “why” of these cannabis consumption trends. 

One possibility: white adults “historically know” that “the likelihood that they will be arrested for marijuana possession was already lower before legalization,” Martins said, “so once it is allowed for recreational use, they know it’s okay to use, and then more people might try.” On the other hand, she continued, “there has been a recent increase in cannabis use among baby boomers and non-Hispanic whites are overrepresented” in that population. 

Martins is planning to continue her cannabis research by next looking into shifts in cannabis use among Administration patients by race and ethnicity. Martins said that she’s planning to reach out to lawmakers and regulators, specifically the Office of Cannabis Management, about the results of the study published this week.

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