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Pot arrests finally dropping nationwide, still mostly possession

On behalf of Dolan + Zimmerman LLP April 12, 2021

Colorado and Washington legalized adult possession of marijuana in 2012.

Since then, a large majority of states have legalized weed, either entirely or for medical use. Still others have decriminalized the drug, meaning that possession results in a fine instead of incarceration. Included among the fully legalized states are California and Illinois, two of the most populous states.

With that being the case, you might expect that arrests for marijuana possession would be way down. Unfortunately, that has not always been the case since the wave of legalization began.

Arrests for possession are still surprisingly common

The number of marijuana possession arrests nationwide peaked in 2007 at almost 837,000. It makes sense that arrests would be down compared to that year, and they are. In fact, there were 37% fewer arrests last year than in 2007.

However, the decline since 2012, when we first legalized, has been surprisingly unsteady, according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) and Reason magazine.

The arrest rate for marijuana possession dropped in 2013 compared to 2012 but rose again in 2014. Then, they declined in 2015 but rose slightly for the next three years. Finally, it dropped noticeably in 2019, when nine states and the District of Columbia legalized adult use, recreational marijuana.

It’s not just that marijuana possession became largely legal between 2012 and 2019. In states most that have since legalized, possession had already been decriminalized. In Colorado, it was treated as a petty offense.

There are still marijuana possession offenses, even in legalization states. For example, public use remains illegal, as does possession of more than an ounce, in many states. However, NORML and Reason’s analysis suggests that the non-legalization states have picked up the slack, arresting people at increased rates.

Racial disparities

According to the ACLU, Black people are 3.6 times more likely, nationwide, than whites to be arrested for possession of marijuana. This is true even though the two groups consume marijuana at roughly the same rate.

Racial disparities persist even after legalization. For example, in Colorado, Black people are nearly twice as likely to be arrested for public use than are white people.

Marijuana arrests are not harmless

A great deal of evidence suggests that marijuana use is itself harmless for adults. Being convicted of a marijuana offense, on the other hand, can have repercussions for years. It can affect your ability to get housing, access education and make a living. If you are facing a marijuana-related arrest, don’t assume it isn’t serious. Get help from an experienced defense attorney.