Reform Cuts Marijuana Possession Arrests 86% in 2011, Upends California Drug Policing


Posted on 10 December 2012

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By Mike Males

Just-released 2011 arrest statistics from the state Criminal Justice Statistics Center show that pioneering legislation downgrading simple marijuana possession from a criminal offense into an infraction - an effort to deter passage of Proposition 19, which would have legalized marijuana outright - has detonated a revolution in California drug-law enforcement.

California's new arrest figures read like something out of a drug policy reformer's dream - but with unexpected twists (see graphics). Arrests for marijuana possession plummeted by 86%, from 54,900 in 2010 to 7,800 in 2011, abruptly reversing a two-decade trend of increasing marijuana misdemeanor arrests and returning numbers to levels not seen since before the Summer of Love.

Arrests, All DrugsArrests, Marijuana PossessionArrest rate is per 100,000 population. The populations used to calculate rates for youth is age 10-17, and for adult, age 18-69. Source: Criminal Justice Statistics Center, Crime in California 2011 (2012).
In fact, California's reform is likely to prove much more effective in reducing simple marijuana arrests than Proposition 19, or Washington's and Colorado's marijuana legalization initiatives passed this year. Those legalization schemes, by continuing to arrest those under age 21 for pot, will cut marijuana arrests by less than 50%.

Just about the only way you can get busted in California for possessing less than an ounce of pot is to get caught holding on school grounds - which is still a misdemeanor and may court over-zealous enforcement by certain school districts. That's why more than three-fourths of California's dwindling marijuana possession arrestees now are under age 18, up from one-third in 2010.

Marijuana manufacture and sales felonies fell from 16,600 in 2010 to in 14,100 2011, a rate decline of 10% among youths and 17% among adults. Overall, marijuana arrests dropped 70% in California from 2010 to 2011.

But there was a tradeoff when it comes to drugs other than marijuana. Arrests for other drugs such as heroin, cocaine, and unprescribed pills declined by 23% among youths in 2011, falling 4 times faster than for adults (down 6%). Whites were the only group to show a rate increase (up 4%) in total drug arrests, which in turn reflected an increase in felonies for drugs other than marijuana (up 6%).

The slower decline in total drug arrests among whites (which occurred only for felonies by whites age 30 and older) compared to other races ameliorates but does not equalize drug arrest rates by race. African Americans were still twice as likely to be arrested for drugs (including 2.6 times more likely for marijuana possession) than whites in 2011, a smaller disparity than in 2010. In fact, whites are now the second most drug-arrest-prone race, with levels higher than for Latinos and Asians.

Given that 5,800 of the state's 7,800 marijuana possession arrestees were under age 18 in 2011 - and given that any drug arrest jeopardizes college loans under federal law - investigation into making low-level possession of marijuana on school property an infraction for youths and adults is needed, especially since schools can enforce their own, additional disciplinary sanctions.

Marijuana reform does not appear to have affected other crimes. For all ages, both sexes, and all races except older whites, felony and violent crime arrests rates declined from 2010 to 2011, with much larger drops among youths than among adults.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified the states that have recently passed marijuana legalization initiatives as Washington and Oregon.


Mike Males is Senior Research Fellow for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ) in San Francisco. He is the author of Teenage Sex and Pregnancy: Modern Myths, Unsexy Realities.

Do you mean Colorado or Oregon?