Cannabis Legalization means police are searching fewer cars. A new study from Stanford University shows that in states where cannabis has been legalized, the number of traffic stops has decreased. The study is as much about the effects of cannabis legalization as it is about the racial profiling that fuels traffic stops, both of which play key roles on opposing sides of the war on drugs.
The Stanford Open Policing Project collects data from traffic stops from law enforcement agencies nationwide. According to the project’s website:
“Our goal is to help researchers, journalists, and policymakers investigate and improve interactions between police and the public.”
In examining data from Washington and Colorado, there were over 50 percent fewer traffic stops across all ethnicities in both states. But the African American and Hispanic populations are still being pulled over at higher rates, sometimes three times more frequently compared to Caucasian drivers. Statistics were based on traffic stops that did not result in an arrest, and were gathered from state law enforcement agencies, as opposed to local municipal police forces.
In states that had not legalized cannabis, no such drop was seen in the number of traffic stops, but the racial differences were evident in 12 states that the project was able to track.
Traffic stops are one of the most common interactions the public has with law enforcement, but for many it’s a gateway into a system where racism flourishes. Racial profiling is still alive and well in local jurisdictions across the country, which feeds into a judicial system that disproportionately penalizes ethnic minorities for nonviolent drug crimes. The roots of the drug war reflect these statistics, which sought to marginalize groups that were deemed a threat to the political establishment.
While legalizing cannabis for the purposes of reducing traffic stops may be far down on the list of priorities for cannabis advocates and civil rights experts, improving the public’s trust in law enforcement is crucial. The testimony of Officer Jeronimo Yanez last week, who shot Philando Castile during a traffic stop because he smelled “burnt marijuana,” is another signal showing law enforcement is not yet fully equipped to differentiate a violent criminal from a person in possession of cannabis. Castile was shot in his home state of North Carolina, where cannabis has been decriminalized. But his death indicates how law enforcement still treats those in possession of a substance as a threat to their personal safety. While legalization may change the outcome of sentencing and reduce the number of those incarcerated for minor drug crimes, it cannot change police policy nor the sentiment of law enforcement overnight.
Limiting interactions between law enforcement and cannabis users could save lives, in the absence of true reform that would hold law enforcement accountable for racial profiling and unjust killings. As states continue to develop their own policies regarding cannabis, the Stanford project shows that lives could be saved indirectly by ending prohibition. With no help from the Justice Department in regards to federal law enforcement oversight or drug reform, progress will continue state-by-state.