Arrests in Colorado for the possession, cultivation and distribution of marijuana have plummeted 95 percent since voters in that state legalized recreational use of the plant in 2012. That's according to a new analysis of Colorado judiciary data by the Drug Policy Alliance, an organization working to reform the nation's drug laws.
The total number of marijuana court cases fell from 39,027 in 2011 to 2,036 cases in 2014. Those 37,000 fewer cases represent a savings of untold millions of dollars in court costs and law enforcement fees. They represent 37,000 fewer people who have to deal with the stigma and financial burden of an arrest and possible conviction. They represent countless police man-hours able to be devoted to other tasks.
“It’s heartening to see that tens of thousands of otherwise law-abiding Coloradans have been spared the travesty of getting handcuffed or being charged for small amounts of marijuana," said the Drug Policy Alliance's Art Way in a press release. "By focusing on public health rather than criminalization, Colorado is better positioned to address the potential harms of marijuana use, while diminishing many of the worst aspects of the war on drugs.”
Critics have been quick to point out that while the arrest rates fell, disparities in arrest rates for black and white marijuana offenders still remain. "These data indicate that while the number of marijuana possession arrests has dropped, the law enforcement practices that produce racial disparities in such arrests have not changed since the passage of Amendment 64," the report concludes.
Inequalities in pot arrest rates have given momentum to marijuana legalization efforts nationwide, particularly in DC. A 2013 ACLU report found that despite similar rates of use, blacks are 3.7 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession.
Of course, few serious observers have ever believed that marijuana legalization was a magic wand to fix racial injustice in law enforcement. Disparities in policing have roots that go back well before the drug war, and it will take a lot more than drug reform to fix them.
But cutting the black arrest rate for marijuana offenses by two-thirds is a welcome first step, and the report brings other good news as well. Arrests for "synthetic marijuana," a catch-all term for dangerous, technically-legal drugs that mimic the effects of marijuana, are down 27 percent since 2013. Teens and young adults are often tempted to try synthetics because, being legal, they're usually easier to obtain than actual marijuana. But marijuana legalization removes some of the incentive to experiment with sketchy gas-station highs.
These numbers add to the already rosy preliminary data from Colorado's first year of full marijuana legalization, including statistics showing that fatal car accidents are flat, crime is unequivocally down, and tax coffers are filling up.
There are, of course, plenty of challenges still facing the state. Regulators still haven't found a clear way to identify and label edible products. Testing for purity and potency is still a relatively new field.
But the sharp fall in arrest rates indicates one clear success of Colorado's marijuana program: rolling back one of the major excesses of the war on drugs.