CannaCrime: Maryland arrest data measure impact of cannabis decriminalization

By Van Smith

Baltimore, Feb. 8, 2019

Thirteen years of available Maryland State Police (MSP) data show dramatic changes in statewide drug-arrest trends as the era of cannabis decriminalization and medical pot approached, arrived in 2014, and thence became the new normal. The result: tens of thousands fewer arrests for drug crimes, including a dramatic drop in the number of drug arrests of African-American Marylanders. More resistant to change, though, is law enforcers’ drug-fighting focus on arrests for cannabis possession and on disproportionately arresting African-Americans for drug crimes generally.

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FSC compiled MSP data for analysis from the annual “Crime in Maryland” reports, which are available online from 2004 to 2016. The data reveal a dramatic reduction in drug-crime arrests – about 20,000 less in 2016 than the 2004-2010 average of 53,500. African-Americans, in particular, have been subjected to far few arrests – 17,500 in 2016, about half the 2004-2010 annual average of 34,500.

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The proportion of drug-crime arrests that were for cannabis possession, though, remains elevated in the era of decriminalization and medically prescribed weed in Maryland – and in fact, after dropping to 44 percent in 2015 from 52 percent in 2014, crept up to 48 percent in 2016. This is historically high; the 2004-2010 average was 41 percent. Thus, drug-crime policing in Maryland – while far less intense in terms of the raw numbers of arrests – remains wed to an increasingly anachronistic inclination to bust people for possessing pot.

The proportion of all drug-crime arrests in which the people charged were African-Americans has dropped moderately with the advent of decriminalization, but remains starkly disproportionate in a state where less than a third of the population is African American. Whereas the average proportion of African-American drug-crime arrests between 2004 and 2010 was 65 percent of all drug-crime arrests in Maryland, in 2015 the figure was 56 percent, and in 2014 it dropped to 53 percent.

It should be pointed out that drug-crime arrests, along with the subset of pot-possession arrests, are blunt data points, obscuring the factual nuances of each arrest’s circumstances. Some such charges could be just one a host brought against, say, a violent drug-dealer, or they could be the one and only charge against an otherwise law-abiding citizen who dissed the wrong cop. Blunt as they are, though, the “Crime in Maryland” data comprise a nice, long, consistent record.

The next “Crime in Maryland” report, covering 2017 data, should be out in the next month or two, at which point FSC will update these analyses.