Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

Editor: Douglas A. Berman
Moritz College of Law

Thursday, March 20, 2014

ACLU of Washington State reports 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 dramtically 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.

Cross posted (with some added commentary) at Sentencing Law & Policy

Criminal justice developments and reforms | Permalink


I remain a little skeptical of the conclusions drawn by the report. I don’t question the accuracy of the raw numbers reported – that there are roughly 5,000-8,000 fewer marijuana filings per year now. But I do question whether that drop has actually improved the state’s budget situation or has at enabled law enforcement to spend more energy on “other important public safety concerns.”
If, as Doug claims in his sentencing blog post, each marijuana possession case costs $2,000 to process, Washington could save a huge bundle of money ($10 million to $16 million). But of course, the law enforcement budget in Washington hasn’t dropped in response to I-502. Perhaps that’s because marijuana filings (the action measured in the ACLU report) isn’t a good indicator of how much time and effort was really being spent to enforce prohibition. For example, many of these marijuana filings might have simply been dropped without consuming large amounts of police / prosecutorial resources.
The other possibility hinted at by the report is that perhaps law enforcement agents are now spending their time pursuing more serious crimes. But again, there’s not data to support that. If a large reduction in marijuana cases is really freeing up police / prosecutorial resources (rather than resulting in layoffs), one would expect the number of filings regarding other types of cases to increase. I would be very interested to see numbers on such filings. Until I do, I’m not quite ready to say that marijuana legalization has achieved one of the benefits commonly attributed to it.

Posted by: Rob Mikos | Mar 21, 2014 8:29:05 AM

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