Marijuana is legal in Colorado as long as youre 21 or older. Its still illegal for kids to possess, so juveniles are coming to dominate the marijuana arrests in Colorado. But another startling trend also has developed: Arrest rates have risen dramatically for young blacks and Latinos.
Ricky Montoya isnt surprised thats happening. Hes standing outside Courtroom 4F in Denvers City and County Building, where he was just ordered to pay a $1,000 fine for his third marijuana possession offense.
They probably look at us more different, he says of police. I dont think they think that white people would smoke as much as we do.
A Colorado Health Department survey found there wasnt a huge racial difference in who smokes pot. But the marijuana arrest rate for white 10- to 17-year-olds fell by nearly 10 percent from 2012 to 2014, while arrest rates for Latino and black youths respectively rose more than 20 percent and more than 50 percent.
That was evident that morning at the courthouse, where about a dozen cases were heard before noon. Only one involved a white kid.
Brian Vicente, who led the marijuana legalization movement in Colorado, says that discrepancy needs to stop.
That is, I think, a large part of the reason Colorado voters passed legalization, Vicente says. Theyre tired of the sort of racist legacy of the drug war.
Vicente says its shameful that local police have shifted their attention to minority kids. But Denver Police spokesman Sonny Jackson says its not a matter of what police want to focus on, but what people are reporting to authorities.
Most of these cases are complaint-driven, Jackson says. We get a complaint from someone, were not sure where its going to take us, but we have to act on it. And were not sure, if I get a call to a residence or to a location, who Im going to encounter until I get there.
Jackson says that pot arrests for adults, of all racial groups, have been cut in half since legalization and he emphasizes that marijuana is a low priority for the department.
Keith Humphreys, who studies drug policy at Stanford University, says Jacksons explanation for the youth arrests mostly rings true.
Police do patrol more in neighborhoods of color, and they also get more calls to respond in neighborhoods of color, he says. And when police show up and find kids illegally in possession of marijuana, theyre obligated to do something about it.
Humphreys theorizes that the marijuana businesses themselves ...