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Massachusetts Has Lowest Pot Arrest Rate In Nation

Monday, December 09, 2013


Marijuana decriminalization in Massachusetts has prompted the lowest rate of arrests for possession by far in the nation before recent legalization measures in Colorado and Washington.

Aside from Massachusetts, most states saw increasing arrest rates for possession between 2004 and 2010 — and, in some cases, a widening racial disparity in those arrests.

In Worcester County in 2010, a black person was still twice as likely to be arrested for possession as a white person according to census data and the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Uniform Crime Reporting Program.

Many still arrested

“We still today arrest 1.6 million people a year for non-violent drug offenses, and we imprison as many as we can — and then we have to pay for it,” said retired State Police Lt. Jack Cole, a co-founder of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, an organization with offices in Medford. “Imagine what we could do with that money.”

In a comprehensive report by the American Civil Liberties Union released this past June, relying on FBI statistics and the U.S. Census' annual county population estimates, arrest rates for marijuana possession were broken down by county and race in all 50 states.

The ACLU concluded that states spent over $3.6 billion enforcing marijuana possession laws in 2010, a combination of policing, judicial and legal, and corrections costs. “What we've done is tasked our police departments into chasing around a bunch of non-violent drug offenders, and prevented them from targeting violent offenders,” Cole said. “That's the job of law enforcement.”

Varied views on marijuana reform

Two nationwide polls this year evidenced majority support for legalization: 58 percent in favor in an October Gallup poll and 52 percent according to the Pew Research Center in April.

But Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a group that supports decriminalization, believes legalization would create more problems, including possible downsides focused around health care costs, car accidents, and addiction.

“We're coming from a youth prevention perspective,” said Jody Hensley, a coordinator with that organization who works with Massachusetts Prevention Alliance. “The march to legalization ... is really changing behaviors (in youth). That's our concern.”

New England arrest rates for possession

The ACLU found that after decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana in 2009, the Bay State's per capita arrest rate plummeted, to 18 arrests for every 100,000 citizens — nearly six times lower than the next lowest state on the list, Hawaii. (The statistics come before voter-approved initiatives in Washington and Colorado in 2012 that legalized the recreational use of marijuana.)

Although Massachusetts proved an early outlier, other states saw their arrest rates drop somewhat also after a 2009 memorandum from U.S. Deputy Attorney General David Ogden that made federal prosecution of state-legalized medical marijuana a low priority.

Among states in New England, Vermont had the next lowest per capita arrest rate for possession in 2010, at 119 arrests for every 100,000 residents.

New Hampshire was ranked 33rd, with a per capita rate of 210, while Rhode Island and Maine were tied at 30th and 31st with a per capita rate of 214.

Connecticut had the highest per capita rate of arrests in New England, at 247, putting it in 23rd place.

Washington, D.C. led the nation in per capita arrests at 846 per 100,000 people, while New York had the highest rate of any state at 535.

Racial disparity in drug crime enforcement

In 2010, more than 20,000 people were incarcerated on the sole charge of marijuana possession according to the ACLU, which also charged that, nationwide, a black person was 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for possession than a white person despite comparable use rates.

After decriminalization in the Bay State, black citizens were still 3.9 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession. That rate paled in comparison to the racial disparity seen in Plymouth and Barnstable counties, where blacks were 10.5 to 11 times more likely to be arrested.

Cole, a 26-year veteran with the New Jersey State Police, spent 14 years working in the narcotics bureau mostly as an undercover officer. The final two years of his career was spent living in Boston and New York City posing as a fugitive drug dealer wanted for murder.

He now calls the war on drugs a failure and drain on police resources. Legalization would allow law enforcement to “do real police work,” he said.


Related Slideshow: New England States with Highest Marijuana Arrest Rates

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6. Massachusetts

National Rank for Arrests per Capita: 51

2010 Arrests Per Capita: 18

National Rank for Raw Arrests: 49

2010 Raw Arrests: 1,191

Photo: Flickr/Blind Nomad

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5. Vermont

National Rank for Arrests per Capita: 48

2010 Arrests Per Capita: 119

National Rank for Raw Arrests: 51

2010 Raw Arrests: 737

Photo: Flickr/Victor

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4. New Hampshire

National Rank for Arrests per Capita: 33

2010 Arrests Per Capita: 210

National Rank for Raw Arrests: 41

2010 Raw Arrests: 2,769

Photo: Flickr/Blind Nomad

Prev Next

3. Rhode Island

National Rank for Arrests per Capita: 31

2010 Arrests Per Capita: 214

National Rank for Raw Arrests: 43

2010 Raw Arrests: 2,243

Prev Next

2. Maine

National Rank for Arrests per Capita: 30

2010 Arrests Per Capita: 214

National Rank for Raw Arrests: 40

2010 Raw Arrests: 2,842

Prev Next

1. Connecticut

National Rank for Arrests per Capita: 23

2010 Arrests Per Capita: 247

National Rank for Raw Arrests: 25

2010 Raw Arrests: 8,815

Prev Next

Number One Overall

Washington D.C.

National Rank for Arrests per Capita: 1

2010 Arrests Per Capita: 846

National Rank for Raw Arrests: 34

2010 Raw Arrests: 5,115

Photo: Flickr/Torben Hansen


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