Yes, you can still get busted for some cannabis-related offenses in California. But now that recreational use is legal, the number of such arrests is dropping quickly.
Those are two takeaways from a crime report issued this week by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra. The data showed a huge drop in marijuana-related arrests last year, with all such arrests falling by 56 percent and felony arrests down 74 percent.
Overall, from 2016 to 2017, the number of people in California facing possible incarceration, hefty legal fees and criminal records as a result of cannabis crimes fell by nearly 8,000.
Those findings pleased people who two years ago worked to pass Proposition 64.
“Overall, I think it bodes well for marijuana legalization in California,” said Jolene Forman, an attorney with the Drug Policy Alliance, which backed the marijuana legalization effort. “It shows… that law enforcement resources are not being wasted on marijuana arrests anymore and can be used on more serious offenses.”
But Becerra’s new Crime in California report — expected to track annual crime statistics statewide — also shows that the rules for cannabis production and consumption still can lead to contact with law enforcement.
In all, 6,065 people were busted for marijuana-related crimes last year in California, a figure that included 2,086 felony arrests.
The data also shows shows that people of color are still being disproportionately arrested for cannabis-related offenses, much as they were prior to the passage of Prop. 64.
Non-Hispanic white people accounted for 24 percent of marijuana felony arrests in 2017, according to the report, while Hispanic people accounted for 40 percent of felony arrests and black people accounted for 21 percent. Those arrest numbers counter other data, which suggests all three populations consume and sell cannabis at about the same rate.
Proposition 64 reduced penalties for just about every crime involving cannabis. Possession with intent to sell was downgraded from felony to a misdemeanor, for example, while transporting up to an ounce of weed went from a misdemeanor to fully legal for anyone 21 and older.
But it’s still a felony to use minors to sell cannabis or to repeatedly grow large amounts of marijuana without a license, and advocates say they never expected marijuana-related arrests would drop to zero under the new law.
“That’s like saying no one is arrested for alcohol anymore because alcohol is legal,” said Dale Gieringer, director of the advocacy group California NORML.
They also didn’t expect systemic problems with racially biased policing to be cured by legalizing marijuana, Forman said, pointing to figures from other legal-weed states that indicate a similarly persistent trend. Still, she said the impact of the injustice is getting smaller, with far fewer people of all races arrested for cannabis under the new laws.
“We don’t get nearly as many calls from people in legal trouble as we used to,” Gieringer said.
Policing experts suggested lessened penalties for cannabis-related crime is a key factor in the decline in arrests.
“Part of the explanation… is simply that cops are making less drug-related arrests because the sentences have been so reduced,” said Shaun Rundle, deputy director for the California Peace Officers’ Association.
“If someone is going to be out of jail six months and back on the streets — and six months is even unlikely these days — then the agencies need to divert their time and resources to the most dangerous and violent crime prevention.”
Based on what’s happened in states that legalized recreational cannabis before California, Forman said we can expect a smaller but steady declines in marijuana arrests in the years to come.
Kevin Sabet, president of the organization Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which opposed Prop. 64, said the new data was easy to predict. He called it “as surprising as saying the robbery arrest rate decreased after we legalized robbery.”
“The much bigger issue is with public use, (driving under the influence) and black market marijuana rates, which this statistic does not touch on,” Sabet added.
Peace Officer representative Rundle said cops remain wary of cannabis-related DUIs, which have yet to be sharply defined under state law.
“We’re concerned that the more you lessen the sentences for cannabis possession and consumption, the more prevalent it is going to be,” he said.
But marijuana advocates saw a win there, too, in the data released this week.
The report shows overall DUI arrests continued their steady decline in 2017, dropping 5 percent from the prior year and down 30 percent since 2012.
“Marijuana legalization in California is still very new,” Forman said, “but these early indications are generally very positive.”