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June 18, 2019

"Most US drug arrests involve a gram or less"

The title of this post is the title of this new short piece by Joseph Kennedy (which condenses some of his really important work set forth in this recent full article, "Sharks and Minnows in the War on Drugs: A Study of Quantity, Race and Drug Type in Drug Arrests"). Here are excerpts:

U.S. drug laws are designed as if every offender was a dedicated criminal like Walter White, treating the possession or sale of even small quantities of illegal drugs as a serious crime requiring serious punishment.

I have studied the war on drugs for a number of years.  Last December, my colleagues and I published a study on U.S. drug arrests, showing that roughly two out of every three arrests by state and local law enforcement target small-time offenders who are carrying less than a gram of illegal drugs.

Virtually all states treat as felonies the sale of any amount of illegal drugs.  The thinking behind these laws is that you cannot catch the big fish without catching some minnows as well.  Many states also treat the mere possession of any amount of a hard drugs, such as cocaine, heroin or meth/amphetamine, as a felony....

We wanted to find out how often the police made arrests involving large quantities of drugs.  To make things manageable, we narrowed our study to three evenly spaced years, 2004, 2008 and 2012.  The resulting data set contained over a million cases, with usable data found in over 700,000 cases.  We believe our study is the most comprehensive study of drug arrest quantity undertaken to date....

Our study found that, by and large, state and local police agencies are arresting small fish, not big ones.  Two out of three drug offenders arrested by state and local law enforcement possess or sell a gram or less at the time of arrest. Furthermore, about 40% of arrests for hard drug are for trace amounts — a quarter of a gram or less.

Because possessing any amount of a hard drug and selling any illegal drug is a felony in virtually every state, the small size of these quantities matter.  They suggest that very minor offenders face felony liability.  Felony convictions make it difficult for ex-offenders to secure good jobs.  They carry many other harmful collateral consequences.

There are few truly big, or even medium-sized, offenders in the remaining arrests.  Arrests for quantities of hard drugs above five grams range between 15 and 20 percent of all arrests, and arrests for a kilogram or more are less than 1%.

What’s more, the racial distribution of these small quantity arrests reveal importance differences between arrests for different types of drugs.

Our study confirms that blacks are disproportionately arrested for crack cocaine offenses, as are whites for meth/amphetamine and heroin offenses.  When it comes to possession of a quarter gram or less, police arrest almost twice as many blacks as whites for crack cocaine.  However, they arrest almost four times as many whites as blacks for heroin and eight times as many whites as blacks for meth/amphetamine.

Offenders of color are, by and large, not significantly more serious offenders in terms of quantity of drugs.  They just possess and sell drugs that are the most frequent target of arrest.  Our study showed about twice as many arrests for crack cocaine as for meth/amphetamine and almost four times as many arrests for crack cocaine as for heroin.

Finally, this study shows that 71% of drug arrests are not for hard drugs, but for marijuana.  The majority of those arrests are also for tiny quantities: 28% for trace amounts and almost 50% for a gram or less.  Once again, blacks are disproportionately arrested for marijuana offenses, making up about a quarter of all marijuana arrests despite being about 13% of the population.

Illegal drugs are ultimately sold in small quantities to users, so it’s not surprising that there are more small quantity offenders in the pool of drug arrestees.  But this study suggests that the majority of state and local drug enforcement resources are spent catching these small fish.  The drug war is not being waged primarily against the Walter Whites, but against much less serious offenders.

Prior related post:

June 18, 2019 at 11:29 AM | Permalink


Is it not the same for guns? Aren't most arrests for people with one gun, and not people with many guns?

Would people who want to legalize possession of less than two ounces of hard drugs also be willing to legalize carrying one gun on the street?

Posted by: Brady | Jun 18, 2019 4:54:29 PM

Possession of a gun on the street is legal in the vast majority of states, Brady, whereas possession of "hard drugs" on the street is not legal anywhere. We would profoundly change the drug war if hard drugs were treated legally like guns.

Posted by: Doug B. | Jun 18, 2019 11:39:32 PM

If recreational marijuana is legalized nationwide at both the state and Federal levels, there would be a profound reduction in the need for police officers, deputy sheriffs, probation officers, jailers, judges, prosecutors and even criminal defense lawyers! 45% of all drug arrests every year in America are just for marijuana; that's more than 800,000 arrests per year that would stop happening if marijuana is legalized nationwide. Think about that.

Posted by: James Gormley | Jun 19, 2019 3:13:37 PM

What's not clear from this summary, or the full paper, is if these are drug-only arrests, or if the drug charge in incidental to whatever other arrest or police activity is happening.

In my "nice" city there are open-air drug markets that the police ignore, belying the idea that police are targeting any kind of drug use or commerce. On the other hand, among deviant and criminal populations drug use is nearly universal, so frequent charges of possession of small amounts should hardly be surprising.

Posted by: Pollyanna Pete | Jun 20, 2019 8:32:58 PM

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