Study: Dramatic Plummet In Marijuana Possession Charges In Colorado After Legalization

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by Owen Poindexter

on March 26, 2015

A new study by the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) shows a dramatic decrease in marijuana-related charges and arrests in Colorado since legalization went into effect there in November 2012. While the findings are perhaps intuitive, they show that legalization in the state has dramatically redirected law enforcement spending away from wasteful citations and arrests related to cannabis. The benefits of legalization are numerous, but one of the largest is that it allows police, judges and other legal officers to focus on crimes that are actually harmful.

The DPA study examined arrest rates and totals in Colorado each year from 2010 to 2014, using data from county judicial districts, and various law enforcement agencies via the National Incident Based Reporting System (NIBRS). The effect of legalization has been dramatic: in 2010, there were 38,878 marijuana charges in Colorado courts — over 100 per day. By 2014, that number had fallen to 2,036, a 95% decrease. Possession charges dropped by 90%, cultivation charges 96% and distribution charges 99%. These figures start to provide a scale for how radically legalization has reshaped Colorado’s legal landscape.

“What is often overlooked concerning marijuana legalization is that it is first and foremost a criminal justice reform,” said Denise Maes, Public Policy Director for the ACLU of Colorado.

“This report reminds us of how law enforcement and our judiciary are now able to better allocate time and energy for more pressing concerns.”

Citizens can still be cited for public consumption, unlicensed sale and infractions related to cultivation, much like alcohol. Unfortunately, these charges post-legalization show the same racially disproportionate pattern that they did pre-legalization, albeit in much smaller numbers.

“The overall decrease in arrests, charges and cases is enormously beneficial to communities of color who bore the brunt of marijuana prohibition prior to the passage of Amendment 64,” said Rosemary Harris Lytle, Regional Chair of the NAACP. “However, we are concerned with the rise in disparity for the charge of public consumption and challenge law enforcement to ensure this reality is not discriminatory in any manner.”

Cannabis criminalization is a scourge on communities of color across the U.S. Legalization has shown that it cannot alter the basic pattern of disproportionate arrests rates, but it can dramatically reduce how many people are affected.