With Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s monumental backing of medical marijuana last week and the admission of New Hampshire and Illinois into the cadre of states allowing medical marijuana, August has already been a great month for marijuana supporters. It is now legal in 20 states and the District of Columbia, and the numbers are rising quickly. For supporters of marijuana legalization, this should be reason to cheer. Right?
While state legislatures are giving marijuana supporters a reason to celebrate, their state law enforcement is not. Many of the states that have legalized medical marijuana have cracked down even harder on marijuana possession arrests. In 2010, there was a 3.06% increase in the marijuana possession arrest rate (people arrested per 100,000 citizens) in states that had legal medical marijuana bills. Of the 15 states that had legalized medical marijuana by that time, the arrest rate increased for 10 of them and decreased for only five. While the data does not specify if people arrested for marijuana possession are buying their weed on the streets or in a dispensary, this news should be troubling for supporters of legalization.
Between 2001 and 2010, when the medical marijuana movement picked up steam and many states considered legalization, the arrest rate for marijuana possession increased in many of those states. The recent ACLU report, highlighting disparities in the arrest rate between whites and blacks, also shows how the arrest rate for marijuana possession has changed over time:
States with legal medical marijuana, 2010
Total Arrest Rate in 2001
Total Arrest Rate in 2010
% Change in Total Arrest Rate
The War on Marijuana in Black and White, page 129
There are a couple of important things to remember when looking at these numbers. First, the arrest rate and the legalization of medical marijuana are completely independent variables – this should not be misconstrued as the arrest rate of people that possess medical marijuana, but rather the arrest rate of marijuana possession in general. Secondly, I am not implying any causation that legalizing medical marijuana leads to a higher marijuana possession arrest rate or anything else. Thirdly, these 15 states legalized medical marijuana at different times — some as early as 1996 (California) and others as recently as 2010 (Arizona and New Jersey). A timeline of medical marijuana legalization can be found here.
So what should this all mean for supporters of marijuana legalization?
On one hand, they should feel very proud of their accomplishments in Illinois, New Hampshire, and the other 18 states where it is now legal. They should be pleased that public intellectuals like Dr. Gupta are reversing their positions on medical marijuana, and should expect more to follow suit.
On the other, they should realize that activism in legislation is only one of many tactics that they should be pursuing, and that increased attention should be paid to law enforcement. Legal medical marijuana is a win, but supporters should realize that their legislative efforts (lobbying, letters to congressmen, protests) are only as effective as each state’s criminal justice policies allow them to be. Simply put: If a state has high arrest quotas for drug possession and an active police force arresting marijuana users, legislative activism will only get you so far.
Even though activists are gaining ground in legalization of medical marijuana, they should direct more attention towards criminal penalties, such as the arrest rates for simple possession. Law enforcement is increasingly buckling down on marijuana possession arrests, even in states like California and Vermont that have both medical marijuana and decriminalization statutes. Unfortunately, the increasing arrest rate could have an impact on people that are using marijuana legally and medicinally in those states. The threat of the arrest and the rise of so-called "warrior cops" (see many case studies in Radley Balko’s new book) making these arrests could even dissuade the sick or injured from trying to get a prescription for medical marijuana.
As the arrest rate for marijuana possession continues to rise, it will become more and more important for civilians to call out for the decriminalization of simple possession and the lessening of criminal penalties. (Yesterday’s announcement about the cutting of mandatory minimum sentences was a great start.) Just because a state has legalized medical marijuana does not mean that they have a criminal justice system that is more lenient on people found in possession of marijuana. In fact, it could mean just the opposite – 10 of the states above that have legalized medical marijuana are arresting marijuana users at a higher rate now than in 2001. Is your state on the list?