Reported Drop in CA Marijuana Arrests: Less Than Meets the Eye

California NORML Release -- December 11, 2012

Reported marijuana arrests dropped sharply as California's new decriminalization law took effect in 2011, but the apparent decline is deceptive because it doesn't count thousands of minor possession offenses that are no longer reported under the new law.

Newly released data from the state Criminal Justice Statistics Center show that misdemeanor arrests for marijuana possession plummeted 86% from 54,849 in 2010 to 7,764 in 2011.

However, these figures don't include citations for possession of less than one ounce, which used to be counted as misdemeanors up through 2010 but are no longer counted under the new law, because they have been downgraded to infractions. Because infractions aren't reported in state criminal arrest statistics, the total number of possession offenses in 2011 is completely unknown, and may even be greater than it was in previous years.

Also see: California Arrest and Prisoner Data for Marijuana

Meanwhile, by far the bulk of marijuana enforcement expenses are due to felony arrests for sales and cultivation, which are estimated to cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars per year. While felony arrests declined from 16,585 to 14,092 from 2010 to 2011, the lowest level since 2006, this hardly marks a dramatic change, as felony arrests have ranged between 12,000 and 17,000 for the past twenty years.

Possession of marijuana was technically a misdemeanor prior to 2011, with possession of one ounce or less punishable by a maximum $100 fine and court expenses, not imprisonment. Under the new decriminalization law, petty possession has been downgraded from a misdemeanor to an infraction, but penalties remain the same, the only difference being that offenders are spared a criminal record and a court appearance. Aside from saving the cost of court appearances, the new law therefore has had minimal effects on users.

"Until felony arrests are significantly reduced, it remains premature to assert that California has entered a new era in marijuana enforcement," says California NORML director Dale Gieringer.

Last year, the state Assembly rejected a bill by Tom Ammiano to reduce felony penalties for cultivation, despite the fact that a poll showed voters supported reform by 58%. "Until more dramatic legal changes are made, California will continue to waste too much money on the unwinnable war on pot," says Gieringer.

California's war on cannabis enters its 100th year in 2013. California NORML is sponsoring a conference to mark the occasion this Jan 26th-7th at Fort Mason in San Francisco.