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California Marijuana Arrests Down Sharply

A report produced by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (Males, 2012) analyzes California data on youth arrests.  There are two obvious trends: (1) youth arrests have been declining since the 1970's, and (2) marijuana arrests have plunged (61%) in the past year.  Of interest here is the second finding since it directly corresponds to the change in California law making simple possession an infraction instead of a misdemeanor, even for those under 18.  As we noted when the law was enacted, this means holding a bag of marijuana is now a lesser offense for a 17-year-old than holding a can of beer.

I'm reminded of something a sociology professor once told me, "we can eliminate all crime by eliminating all laws."  The behavior can remain, but it is only a crime if the law says it is. 

So, we cannot infer that marijuana use has dramatically declined, only that arrests have almost stopped.  But we also cannot infer that use has increased. Crime statistics are notoriously bad at indicating base-rates of the underlying behaviors.  But there are three encouraging additional findings within the report:

  1. There was no increase (and in fact a decrease) in marijuana felony cases.  This may indicate that in spite of the liberalization, larger scale marijuana involvement by youth did not increase.
  2. There was a decrease in other drug arrests as well.  So any lingering concerns about marijuana as a gateway to other drugs has again not played out in these data; at least for now.
  3. Overall arrests for violent and non-violent crime continue their downward trend.  If there are underlying increases in marijuana use within California youth due to the liberalization of possession laws, it is not creating more criminal activity, at least as reflected in arrests.

So this means... the consequence of marijuana-law reform has likely resulted in fewer young people entering our justice system.  That's certainly a good thing.  Whether there will be concomitant increases in other crime or public health impacts is yet to be seen.  The data from 2011 do not show evidence of other crime or drug use increases, but it is plausible to assume that use rates will increase gradually as the population begins to fully appreciate the lack of legal risk associated with marijuana use.  As that takes hold, it may have a more obvious effect on issues such as impaired driving and dependence.  We also don't know yet how this is affecting court-mandated treatment referrals, but presumably it is. We need data other than arrests to spot all of the consequences.

Reference

Males, M. (2012). California Youth Crime Plunges to All-Time Low (Research Brief) (p. 9). San Francisco, CA: Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. Retrieved from http://www.cjcj.org/files/CA_Youth_Crime_2011.pdf