Saturday, July 20, 2019
Throughout most of the Unites States, millions of Americans are able to "legally" buy and sell marijuana for medical or recreational purposes. (Of course, I put "legally" in quotes because all these activities are violations of federal law, but the laws and practices of states and localities define enforcement realities.) Given all the "legal" marijuana activity, it can be dangerously easy to forget that the criminalization of marijuana is still a significant criminal justice reality for a significant number of individuals. But these two new stories about arrests in two states provides an important reminder of this reality:
From the Washington Post, "Marijuana arrests in Va. reach highest level in at least 20 years, spurring calls for reform." An excerpt:
Nearly 29,000 arrests were made for marijuana offenses in Virginia last year, a number that has tripled since 1999, according to an annual crime report compiled by the Virginia State Police. Marijuana busts account for nearly 60 percent of drug arrests across Virginia and more than half of them were among people who were under 24, according to the data. The vast majority of cases involved simple possession of marijuana....
The Virginia Crime Commission found that 46 percent of those arrested for a first offense for possession of marijuana between 2007 and 2016 were African Americans, who represent about only 20 percent of Virginia’s population....
In Virginia, a first conviction for possessing marijuana is a misdemeanor that can result in up to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine. Subsequent arrests can result in up to 12 months in jail and a $2,500 fine. A defendant’s driver’s license is also revoked for six months for a drug conviction. The Virginia Crime Commission study found that only 31 people were in jail in July 2017 solely for a conviction of possessing marijuana in the state. The libertarian Cato Institute estimated Virginia spent $81 million on marijuana enforcement in 2016.
From Wisconsin Watch, "Blacks arrested for pot possession at four times the rate of whites in Wisconsin." An excerpt:
Almost 15,000 adults in Wisconsin were arrested in 2018 for marijuana possession, a 3% increase from 2017, according to data from the state Department of Justice. Prison admissions in Wisconsin for marijuana also were higher in 2016 for black individuals than for whites, according to the state Department of Corrections. Some experts believe this disparity can be attributed to policing practices in low-income neighborhoods that tend to have more residents of color....
Under state law, possession of marijuana of any amount for a first-time offense can lead to up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000. Any offense after that is classified as a felony and can result in a sentence of three and a half years in prison with a maximum fine of $10,000.
I want to believe that recently increases in marijuana arrests are mostly a product of increased marijuana activity and not an extra focus on marijuana enforcement. But whatever the reason, I sincerely wonder if anyone sincerely believes that all of the time, money and energy expended for all these marijuana arrests serves to enhance justice or safety in these jurisdictions.
Cross-posed at SENTENCING LAW AND POLICY.