Cannabis-related arrests in Urbana reach historic low; Black people still arrested more often after legalization

You are currently viewing Cannabis-related arrests in Urbana reach historic low; Black people still arrested more often after legalizationDarrell Hoemann
The window for the Urbana Police Department office inside the Urbana City Hall on Thursday, September 4, 2014. photo by Darrell Hoemann/C-U Citizen Access

Unsurprisingly, cannabis-related arrests have plunged in Urbana in the past three years since the legalization of cannabis, but the decline may be more dramatic than expected.

Since January 2020, the legalization of cannabis has brought numerous cannabis stores for recreational and medical use, such as nuEra Cannabis, Sunnyside Cannabis Dispensary and Cloud9 Cannabis Dispensary.

Urbana has a public database logging all cannabis-related arrests in the city, including possession over the limit, delivery and manufacturing. The data includes arrests, citations and summons, differentiated by an arrest type and the listed outcome.

CU-CitizenAccess reviewed the arrest data for 14 different cannabis-related crimes. The records begin in 1988 and end in February this year.

Source: Urbana Open Data Portal as of February 2023.

In the years before the legalization, cannabis arrests were already declining. Arrests per year reached 203 in 2013 and steadily dropped to 34 in 2020 when cannabis was legalized. Despite legalization, the city ordinance outlines the limits and regulations regarding possession, operating vehicles and growing cannabis.

The number continued to decline through 2022, reaching a low of only 12 arrests. Only one arrest had been made this year as of February.

Urbana Interim Police Chief Richard Surles said the reduction of arrests is expected while law enforcement focuses on various aspects of cannabis use, such as possessing large amounts and other charges that come as a result of use. 

“Cannabis certainly falls into the category of drugs that would trigger a DUI arrest,” Surles said in an email. “There have been some relatively recent changes that indicate that motorists would need to be directly under the influence of drugs in order to be DUI, as opposed to several years ago when any amount of the drug in your system meant that you were DUI.” 

Peter Contos, deputy director of the non-profit advocacy group Cannabis Equity Illinois Coalition, said he works primarily in Chicago but also does work state-wide in advocacy, business support, youth programming and policy reform.

He said he’s noticed traffic stops don’t solely produce cannabis charges but also can result in other charges such as gun violations.

The data on the city’s portal hasn’t been updated since February this year due to a transition to a new system, officials said, so this year’s data is incomplete. The data also has misspellings, typos, and data entry errors. For example, Champaign has six different spellings where it lists the arrestee’s hometown.

Young Black men make up the majority of arrests

The disparity in cannabis possession arrests between men and women hasn’t changed over the years — men have been arrested more often than women, even in the last three years. After legalization, the number of men arrested for a cannabis-related charge is 54 men to 7 women. 

Black people are arrested more often compared with all other ethnicities, making up 77% of arrests since legalization. Out of 61 arrests in Urbana over the past three years, 47 people are Black, 10 are white and 4 are Hispanic.

Overall, data shows young Black men between the ages of 17 to 30 make up the general demographic for cannabis arrest. Black youth as young as 11 and men aged 30 or younger made up about 52% of all arrested people since legalization in 2020. 

There are 169 entries with missing or redacted information. The age is listed as 0 and the race and sex are unknown. All of these occurred before legalization.

Since legalization, cannabis advocacy groups and criminal justice-based advocacy groups have begun expunging records of past cannabis offenses or sealing records.

Contos said even if your record is expunged, the official data would still have a record of the arrest. Identifying information is limited to age, sex, race, employment status, hometown, home state and home zip code for Urbana’s dataset.

Contos said there are no limitations for people seeking expungement of their records in the state of Illinois. The process for either sealing or expungement spans the local police force, state police force, the court system and FBI records that would need to be addressed in either process. 

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