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Marijuana Arrests Skyrocket in California

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By "Radical" Russ Belville

A new report from the Center on Juvenile & Criminal Justice entitled “Misdemeanor Marijuana Arrests are Skyrocketing” is the latest piece of evidence to show that medical marijuana laws do not go far enough and the time for legalization is now.

In numerical terms, 20,800 Californians were arrested for misdemeanor possession of marijuana in 1990; 54,800 in 2010. Meanwhile, arrests for possession of all other illicit drugs, as well as for felony drug manufacture and sale, declined sharply. In 1990, simple marijuana possession comprised 8% of all drug arrests; in 2010, it comprised 22%.

Keep in mind that up until this year, when the decrim law signed by Gov. Schwarzenegger in late 2010 went into effect, possession of up to an ounce was a non-arrestable misdemeanor.  So those arrests are possession of more than an ounce or “gift” of less than an ounce.  Any sale or cultivation in California remains a felony.

That is, unless you are a medical marijuana patient.  As California NORML estimates, there are between 750,000 and 1,125,000 medical marijuana patients in the state protected from arrest for possession, sale, and cultivation.  This represents roughly 25% to 37.5% of the estimated 3,026,000 annual cannabis consumers in California aged 18 and older, according to the 2008 National Survey on Drug Use & Health(the most recent state numbers available).

Another way to look at it?  Even as over one in four California pot smokers became “legal”, more than twice as many were being arrested for it.  (I think this brings up an interesting question: when the cost of becoming “legal” is as low as $42 in some places and all you need to qualify is a complaint of sleeplessness to shop at the best weed markets in the world (albeit for $16-$17/gram), why are 3 out of 4 tokers not getting their recommendations?*)

In 1990, half of California’s marijuana possession arrestees were African-American, Latino, Asian, or other nonwhite and 35% were under age 20. In 2010, 64% were nonwhite and 52% were under age 20. Marijuana possession arrests of teenagers of color rose from 3,100 in 1990 to 16,400 in 2010 – an arrest surge 300% greater than population growth in that group.

Compared to Non-blacks, California’s African-American population are 4 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana, 12 times more likely to be imprisoned for a marijuana felony arrest, and 3 times more likely to be imprisoned per marijuana possession arrest. Overall, …these disparities accumulate to 10 times’ greater odds of an African-American being imprisoned for marijuana than other racial/ethnic groups.

It’s as it has always been – prohibition is a tool of racial discrimination and nothing about fifteen years of legal medical use has changed that.

As of June 30, 2011, 1,325 inmates in California prisons were serving sentences for marijuana offenses, including 1,224 imprisoned in 2010, both decreases from the previous year. Marijuana offenders—costing an average of $45,800 per year to imprison and serving an average of 13 months behind bars—cost the state $60 million in 2011.

So much for the notion that nobody really goes to prison for marijuana.  Opponents will always couch that in terms of “non-violent first-time possession-only” because simple things like growing your own plant, keeping your weed in two separate baggies, owning a scale, or selling your friend a dime bag can all turn those misdemeanors into felonies and then into serious jail time.

* Because we are exceptionally honest people.  Ask any cop.


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