Legalizing Marijuana Has Little Effect On Policing In Some Cities California is among five states this year where marijuana legalization is on the ballot. But there's concern about if legalizing it will reduce the number of marijuana arrests among African-Americans.

Legalizing Marijuana: It Changes Policing, But May Leave Racial Disparities

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Marijuana legalization is on the ballot in five states this year, but it's been legal in Washington and Colorado for four years. With voters in other states facing this choice, we wanted to look at how policing is changing in a state that legalized marijuana. Austin Jenkins of the Northwest News Network in Olympia, Wash., and April Dembosky of member station KQED in San Francisco bring us this report.

APRIL DEMBOSKY, BYLINE: I'm taking a walk around Lake Merritt in Oakland. Joggers are passing me on the right, and I dodge a couple strollers on the left. Along with the smell of sweat and goose poop, weed is an equally present aroma. Police seem to take light-up-and-let-live attitude here. But when I cross paths with Nashanta Williams out walking her dog, she says it's not like this in other parts of the city.

NASHANTA WILLIAMS: I have been pulled over and been told that my car smells like marijuana and put on the sidewalk and had my vehicle searched. And I felt like they were - they were fishing.

DEMBOSKY: This was about two years ago. Williams was driving in East Oakland down High Street - no joke. William says in those African-American neighborhoods, people get profiled.

WILLIAMS: Back then, I drove a '94 Buick, so I think the stereotype falls into the play, too - old car, smells like weed. What has she got going on? Who is she with?

DEMBOSKY: Defense attorney James Clark's office window looks down on the lake. He says this stop and smell practice happens across the state. In California, the smell of marijuana gives police probable cause to search someone's entire vehicle. So if cops find something bigger, like guns or stolen property, Clark says that can turn a traffic stop into a felony.

JAMES CLARK: You can imagine that if you're trying to advance your career by searching cars along the freeway that this is a tool that would be difficult to resist passing up.

DEMBOSKY: Both Clark and the Nashanta Williams are wondering if recreational pot gets legalized in California, could that be the end of this stop-and-smell practice? So Austin, that's what's on the minds of voters in California. Did policing change up there in Washington state?

AUSTIN JENKINS, BYLINE: The short answer is yes, it did. And to get a sense of this, I went for a ride-along with a Washington State Patrol sergeant named Nate Hovinghoff.

NATE HOVINGHOFF: We'll clear here, and we'll head down 205 and head east on 14...

JENKINS: Sergeant Hovinghoff has been with the patrol for 11 years and works along the scenic Columbia River Gorge that divides Washington and Oregon, another state that recently legalized pot.

HOVINGHOFF: Yeah, so prior to legalization, in Washington state, odor alone was enough to arrest.

JENKINS: If Hovinghoff pulled over a vehicle, say, for speeding and smelled marijuana, that gave him license to investigate further.

HOVINGHOFF: In my experience as a trooper, probably 90 percent of my felony arrests, they started with the odor of marijuana.

JENKINS: But once pot was legalized in Washington state, the rules of engagement changed.

HOVINGHOFF: Now when I stop a vehicle and I go up and I smell marijuana, if they're 21 years or over, it doesn't mean automatically a crime's occurred.

JENKINS: So April, Hovinghoff says as long as the driver of the car is compliant with the law and not impaired - and that's key - it's basically, have a nice day.

DEMBOSKY: Yeah, but folks like Nashanta Williams aren't convinced that it will go down like that in California. The state already has liberal marijuana laws, but Williams doesn't think everyone will get a fair shake if pot is formally legalized.

WILLIAMS: What do I know will happen is they will use it as an in and probably try to harass whatever person of color is smoking because what is legal for one is not necessarily what's legal for all.

DEMBOSKY: In fact, recent data from police stops in Oakland show that African-Americans are more likely than whites to be searched, handcuffed and arrested.

JENKINS: And that question of disparity is very much in the minds of researchers who are tracking the effects of marijuana legalization. Mike Males is with the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. He released a study earlier this year that's been widely cited. It shows that while marijuana arrests dropped dramatically in Washington state, African-Americans are still two times more likely to be arrested for marijuana-related offenses.

MIKE MALES: So there's still a large racial discrepancy. It doesn't solve that. It does reduce the overall impact of marijuana arrest, but it doesn't change the racial discrepancy as much.

JENKINS: The bottom line, says Males, who spoke via Skype, if one of the goals is to reduce marijuana-related arrests, then legalization appears to accomplish that.

DEMBOSKY: But it sounds like he's also saying it's not going to resolve disparities in how the law is enforced or applied. For NPR News, I'm April Dembosky in Oakland, Calif.

JENKINS: And I'm Austin Jenkins in Olympia, Wash.

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