Wednesday, July 25, 2018
It should not be surprising to see a significant drop in felony marijuana prosecutions after a jurisdiction legalizes the drug. But this new local article reporting on data from Washington highlights how dramatic the drop has been in one state. The article is headlined "After Legalization, A Nearly 90 Percent Drop In Marijuana Felony Convictions," and here are excerpts (with a few sentences emphasized):
The legalization of recreational marijuana in Washington state in 2012 resulted in a dramatic decrease in the number of people sentenced for marijuana-related felonies, according to an analysis conducted for public radio by the Washington State Caseload Forecast Council.
Between June 2008 and December 2009, the analysis showed, there were 1,312 offenses committed that resulted in felony sentences for the manufacture, delivery or possession with the intent to deliver marijuana. By contrast, during an 18 month period following the opening of recreational marijuana stores in 2014, there were just 147 marijuana-related crimes that resulted in felony level sentences--a nearly 90 percent decrease....
The sharp drop in felony-level marijuana sentences in Washington is not a surprise to Tom McBride, the executive director of the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys. In an email, McBride said a decline in prosecutions was "expected" and "desired" by the public. He added that legalization had also made it more difficult to establish probable cause in delivery to minors or black market marijuana-related cases "because presence, odor, etc of marijuana can be legal or not."
Steve Strachan, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, also said the reduction in prosecutions was to be expected. But he added that a de-emphasis on marijuana enforcement, in part because of the rise in heroin and fentanyl cases, was resulting in more black market marijuana grows with ties to organized crime. “We need to direct more resources to the illicit [marijuana] grows that we are seeing across the state,” Strachan said in an email.
Of the 1,312 felony marijuana sentences that stemmed from offenses committed between June 2008 and December 2009, the vast majority, 1,217, were for first-time offenses, 76 were for subsequent offenses, 17 were for marijuana-related felonies in a school zone and two were for delivery or possession in a correctional facility.
By contrast, between December 2014 and June 2016, after marijuana stores opened, the number of marijuana crimes resulting in felony sentences for a first offense dropped to 145, there were no sentences for subsequent offenses or for selling marijuana in a school zone, and just one felony sentence related to marijuana in a correctional facility.
The Caseload Forecast Council, which helps the state plan for growth in entitlements, picked those particular date ranges to account for several factors including: the time lapse between the date of an offense and the date of the sentencing, and the length of time between when I-502 passed and the start of retail sales.
Data showing sentences for misdemeanor level marijuana crimes was not immediately available.
I think it especially notable that this data reveals how many first offenders were being brought into the criminal justice system prior to marijuana reform for felony offenses. But I would love to also see (a) what kinds of sentences felony offenders were getting both before and after legalization, as well as (b) prosecutions and sentences for misdemeanor marijuana offenses both before and after legalization. These felony data provides one snapshot of how marijuana reform impacts the criminal justice footprint of one part of the war on drugs, but a lot more data (and time) is needed to fully take stock of what a difference legalization laws can make.