Washington DC residents face the greatest statistical likelihood of being arrested for pot possession. That’s according to a new report released by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland. Authors of the report reviewed 2010 data provided by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the US Census to calculate which states were the most likely, and the least likely, to bust people for personal use amounts of weed. Their state-by-state tallies appear on page 7 of the report here.
The study reports that the marijuana arrest rate for residents of the District of Columbia is 846 per 100,000 – the highest total of any region in the country.
New York state came in a close second with 535 pot possession arrests for every 100,000 residents. (New York also led all 50 states in the total number of pot possession arrests reported in 2010: a whopping 103,698 – some 14 percent of all marijuana possession arrests reported nationwide that year.)
Nebraska ranked third, reporting some 417 cannabis possession arrests per 100,000 residents. Ranking fourth was Maryland, with 409 possession arrests per 100,000 residents. Illinois ranked fifth, with 389 arrests per 100,000 residents.
States with the lowest number of pot possession arrests per 100,000 residents were: Massachusetts (18), Hawaii (106), Alabama (115), Vermont (119), and Washington (124).
The five states reporting the largest total number of annual pot possession arrests in 2010 were: New York, Texas (74,286), Florida (57,951), California** (57,262), and Illinois (49,904). The states reporting the fewest number of annual possession arrests were: Vermont (737), North Dakota (1,162), Massachusetts (1,191), Montana (1,210), and Hawaii (1,448).
The data indicates that police priorities, rather than the legal status of pot, arguably plays a major role in state-by-state arrest totals. For instance, minor cannabis possession New York state is technically ‘decriminalzed’ (and has been since the mid-1970s). Nevertheless, police in New York City have a well-publicized history of ignoring the statute by engaging in stop-and-frisk shakedowns of civilians and then charging them with the possession of marijuana in public view, a criminal misdemeanor, if they find pot on their person. To date, legislative efforts to equalize the state’s marijuana possession penalties have been unsuccessful, despite the fact that the policy costs taxpayers an estimated $75 million per year. Nebraska’s elevated pot possession arrest rate is similarly vexing since first-offenses (of less than one ounce) are classified under state law as an infraction and should not result in a criminal arrest. (By contrast, subsequent marijuana possession violations are classified as criminal offenses under state law.)
Conversely, among the five states with the lowest rates of marijuana possession arrests, only one state – Massachusetts – had classified cannabis possession as a non-criminal offense in 2010. (Washington eliminated minor marijuana possession penalties in 2012; Vermont decriminalized cannabis possession in 2013.)
As for Washington, DC’s top status as the nation’s pot possession arrest capitol, the dubious distinction may be fleeting. In July, a majority of members of the DC City Council introduced municipal legislation to minimize pot possession offenses to that of a parking ticket. The Council is anticipated to approve the change in DC law in January.
** California lawmakers reclassified minor cannabis possession offenses from a criminal misdemeanor to a civil infraction in 2010, a change that has resulted in a precipitous drop in the number of arrests reported in subsequent years.
Paul Armentano is deputy director of NORML.