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March 20, 2014

ACLU of Washington State reports huge drop in low-level marijuana offense court filings after legalization initiative

As detailed in this press release, the ACLU of Washington State has some new data on one criminal justice reality plainly impacted by marijuana reform.  Here are the details:

Passed by Washington voters on November 6, 2012, Initiative 502 legalized marijuana possession for adults age 21 and over when it went into effect 30 days later.  New data show the law is having a dramatic effect on prosecutions for misdemeanor marijuana possession offenses in Washington courts.  The ACLU of Washington’s analysis of court data, provided by the Administrative Office of the Courts, reveals that filings for low-level marijuana offenses have precipitously decreased from 2009 to 2013:

• 2009 – 7964
• 2010 – 6743
• 2011 – 6879
• 2012 – 5531
• 2013 – 120

“The data strongly suggest that I-502 has achieved one of its primary goals – to free up limited police and prosecutorial resources. These resources can now be used for other important public safety concerns,” says Mark Cooke, Criminal Justice Policy Counsel for the ACLU of Washington....

Although the overall number of low-level marijuana offenses for people age 21 and over has decreased significantly, it appears that racial bias still exists in the system.  An African American adult is still about three times more likely to have a low-level marijuana offense filed against him or her than a white adult.

Initiative 502 legalized possession of up to one ounce of marijuana for adults 21 and over.  However, possession of more than an ounce, but no more than 40 grams, remains a misdemeanor.  Exceeding the one-ounce threshold is a likely explanation for the presence of 120 misdemeanor filings against adults in 2013.

A number of folks on this blog who seem opposed to marijuana reform are often quick to (rightly) note that very few people are serving prison sentence for low-level marijuana offenses. But this data provides a notable reminder that, even in a liberal state with medical marijuana legalized, many thousands of persons can still get arrested and prosecuted for misdemeanor marijuana possession offenses unless and until a state fully legalizes marijuana possession.

If it is reasonable to estimate that it costs around $2000 to process each of these misdemeanor possession cases (which may be a conservative estimate based on some numbers crunched here), the elimination of over 5,000 pot arrests could be alone saving Washington State more than $10 million each year.  That amount is perhaps not all that much money in a state with a nearly $40 billion annual budget, but it would be enough to double the monies the state spends on a state seed program called "Building for the Arts."   Though my biases are showing here, I generally think citizens are likely to get a better civic return on their tax dollars when state money is spent helping to build for the arts rather than busting a few thousand potheads.

Cross posted at Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

March 20, 2014 at 05:37 PM | Permalink


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While some may be quick to claim that very few people are doing time for marijuana offenses, their claim is not correct. Moreover, their larger point is not correct. Their larger point, which goes hand-in-hand with their effort to divert attention from the tangible, adverse consequences on the lives of those prosecuted for and convicted of "low-level" marijuana offenses, is that marijuana is dangerous and that legalization or decriminalization is just a slippery slope.

People get taken into custody for so-called minor marijuana offenses. They are not all released on OR. While some may "only" spend a few days or weeks in custody in connection with such charges, the consequences of such detention can be devastating --- loss of job, etc.

Obama smoked pot. Bush smoked pot. Clinton smoked pot. But, they weren't arrested, prosecuted, or convicted. It's not fair that the unlucky folks (mostly non-white) who happen to get popped for "minor" marijuana offenses are the ones who end up suffering adverse consequences, when the last three presidents, like most white fraternity boys, most of whom go to bed and wake up to a couple bong hits, suffer no adverse consequences.

By way of contrast, somewhat, Cheney got 2 DUIs. In any rational assessment of blameworthy conduct, that conduct has to be considered more wrong than the simple act of twisting up and smoking a j-bar.

Posted by: Fred | Mar 20, 2014 7:59:34 PM

It occurs to me the real reason why police and prosecutors do not want to legalize weed is because the mere scent of weed gives them legal cause to engage in warrantless searches of cars and persons to try and discover more serious offenses. If plain smell doesn't support a warrantless search then the police have a hard time justifying many stops yielding evidence of more serious offenses. What are the police in Washington doing to continue to perform searches when they can no longer rely on the smell of weed to provide cause?

Posted by: ? | Mar 20, 2014 8:31:14 PM

I would say the smell of weed from a car is still going to give Wash. police PC: PC to think the operator of the car is driving while impaired. (As they would presumably have if they smelled alcohol after pulling somebody over.) Also, I would think PC to believe federal law is being violated may also give rise to a permissible search -- even by a state cop in a state where possession of weed is legal.

Posted by: lawyer | Mar 21, 2014 12:02:16 PM

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