Proposition 19, the California ballot initiative that would decriminalize possession of less than one ounce of marijuana, has largely been an amusing sideshow in an otherwise nasty election season. Polls show that Californians are fairly split on the initiative, but much will depend on who turns out to the polls on Tuesday morning. One group whose vote may turn out to be decisive is minority voters. Yet pre-election polls show that support for Proposition 19 is higher, but not uniform among this group.
One might argue that racial minorities have the most to gain from the passage of Proposition 19. We know from anonymous drug use surveys that the prevalence of marijuana use is only slightly higher among racial minorities than among whites. Nevertheless, Blacks and Hispanics are disproportionately arrested for possession of marijuana in California, as they are in virtually every other part of the country. The disparity is dramatic in some high-crime cities (see the chart from NPR below). While a first arrest for possession of a small amount of marijuana typically does not carry jail time, it can lead to more prison time for people on parole or under court supervision. Here, again, blacks and Hispanics are dramatically overrepresented (precise estimates aren’t available).
Yet the passage of Proposition 19 may be an unfulfilled promise for minorities. Even some supporters acknowledge that the underlying problems of a flawed criminal justice system – including higher vehicle and personal search rates – will not be reduced. Proposition 19 simply declassifies one form of contraband. It is also unclear how the law will handle people that possess quantities of marijuana large enough to distribute. Even if the federal government casts a blind eye to small amounts of marijuana possession (as they already do for “medical” marijuana), marijuana distribution is still a felony crime. Marijuana dealers account for a high proportion of marijuana convictions in California, and that may not necessarily change after Proposition 19 passes.
Another reasonable concern is whether the law will have negative spillovers on minority communities. Selling drugs has been one of the few informal economic activities for young, inner city black males with low education. By reducing (but not eliminating) the threat of criminal sanction, Proposition 19 may help to make this industry more transparent and safer. It may also make it more corporate. Potentially the law could “squeeze out the little guy,” leading youth to seek alternative markets (such as cocaine dealing). This is a speculative possibility to be sure, but we are dealing with a fairly (ahem) hazy labor market.
For researchers Proposition 19 may present an interesting natural experiment. There are many unanswered questions about the potential effect of the law on labor markets, arrest rates, drug initiation rates, and overall consumption that will need to be studied. There are also important questions about how the law will affect the character of low-income communities, for better or worse. Perceptions about marijuana use are already likely very divided (although I can’t find polling data on the heterogeneity of public preferences) across the socioeconomic spectrum, and perceptions can often shape the reality of crime and opportunity in low-income communities (see Robert Sampson’s work). What may appear to be a harmless diversion to one person, may signal to another that the neighborhood has gone up in smoke.