CannaCrime: Latest Maryland pot-possession arrest data show uptick, stark regional differences

By Van Smith

Baltimore, March 28, 2019

The intended effects of decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of cannabis – the civilian benefit of fewer damning arrest records, especially for African-Americans who have suffered arrests disproportionately, and the police bonus of freeing up resources to pursue graver crimes – have been evident in Maryland since the measure became law in 2014. But the latest year for which data are available, 2017, shows a continuing creep upward in the prevalence of cannabis-possession arrests statewide, with stark regional differences, and an uptick in the percentage of African-American drug arrests.

Free State Cannablawg crunched the Maryland State Police numbers released this month, along with annual crime and population data going back to 2010, to find that per-capita pot-possession arrests, while still lower than before decriminalization, have gone up each year between 2015 and 2017. So have the percentages of all drug arrests that are for cannabis possession, a measure of drug-policing prioritization that essentially has returned to pre-decriminalization levels. Drug arrests of African-Americans, after dropping from 60 percent of all drug arrests in 2014 to 53 percent in 2016, in 2017 reversed course to 54 percent.

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In some areas of the state, meanwhile, decriminalization has resulted in either a higher prevalence of pot-possession arrests, a greater level of police resources devoted to such arrests, or both. The Eastern Shore and Southern Maryland, in particular, show a marked rise in per-capita pot-possession arrests in the aftermath of decriminalization. Only the Baltimore region has demonstrated a continued drop in per-capita pot-possession arrests since decriminalization, with Western Maryland exhibiting an apparent plateau at a lower level.

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Both the Baltimore region and Western Maryland also have shown a continued dampening of drug policing devoted to cannabis possession – as has the Lower Eastern Shore, where the slight drop is relative to a very high level of pot-policing. In the suburban Washington region, meanwhile, decriminalization barely made a dent in the drive toward higher percentages of drug arrests that were for pot-possession.

The trends apparent in the pot-arrest data are a function of discretion exercised by police. Clearly, police forces in some regions of Maryland have taken the decriminalization memo to heart, while others have opted ratchet up their dedication to arresting people for possessing cannabis. The result is a state where, despite decriminalization, police increasingly are returning to their previously normal habit of arresting people who are found with some weed.

FreeStateCannablawg doesn’t have data to show reasons why this is happening, but would like to know whether, in a time when increasing numbers of Marylanders have access to legally prescribed medical cannabis, police are encountering more people who are more often carrying apparently illegal amounts over 10 grams, and thus are arresting them.

In the absence of such data, FreeStateCannablawg would accept anecdotes and suggested explanations. Should anyone be aware of medical-cannabis patients being arrested for illegal pot-possession, feel free to send relevant information to – and, please, if you have any, offer ideas for possible other reasons for the data trends in the comments section.


CannaCrime: Latest Baltimore crime data show dramatic decline in cannabis-possession arrests as decriminalization takes hold

By Van Smith

Baltimore, March 22, 2109

While racial disparities continue to muddy the waters of pot-prohibition discussions, one thing jumps out when crunching newly available Maryland State Police crime data: Baltimore City’s law-enforcement discretion in the age of decriminalization had led to a free fall in the number of people getting jacked up for possessing cannabis. As the city’s numbers have dropped, so too have the region’s: from nearly 500 pot-possession arrests per 100,000 residents in 2010, to below 150 per 100,000 residents in 2017.

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It took me some time to create this population-corrected analysis, but it’s borne fruit. Also interesting to note are trends in specific counties. In Harford, for instance, per-capita pot-possession arrests jumped significantly in 2016 and 2017 compared to the six years prior – decriminalization since 2014 seems to have had the opposite practical affect there than the policymakers intended – and in Anne Arundel the downward shift is decidedly muted. Baltimore County, meanwhile, clearly has taken the decrim memo to heart by bringing its per capita possession-arrest numbers in 2017 down to Baltimore City’s sub-basement levels.

CannaCrime: Big drop in Baltimore City pot-possession arrests, but not in the suburbs

By Van Smith

Baltimore, Feb. 8, 2019

The statewide phenomenon of police in Maryland disproportionately arresting African Americans on drug charges is profoundly clear in FSC’s analyses of Maryland State Police (MSP) crime data. (And it’s an ongoing problem in Baltimore City, starkly reported by Baltimore Fishbowl in December.) But in the Baltimore region, another disparity also leaps out from the data – while city police are only occasionally arresting people for cannabis possession now, suburban cops have hardly reined in their pot-arrest instincts.

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What’s more, Baltimore City and the surrounding suburban counties have switched places when it comes to the prevalence of cannabis-possession arrests since 2010. The city saw one such arrest for every 90 residents in 2010, while in the suburbs the figure was one in every 320 residents. In 2016, the surburban number had inched up to one in every 580 residents – but in the city, it had climbed precipitously to one pot-possession arrest for every 1,280 residents, a striking change.

The chart above shows the switch started to occur around 2013, when roughly the same number of pot-possession arrests occurred in the city versus the suburbs. After that, the city’s number of such arrests dropped to below 500 a year, while in the suburbs – the data are for Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford, and Howard counties – they remained in the high 3000s.

Pot-possession enforcement in Baltimore City has become almost rare, with a rapid drop in the proportion of all drugs arrests that were for pot possession starting in 2014 – and falling to below 10 perent thereafter. In the surrounding counties and statewide, though, enforcement intensity remains high – nearly 50 percent in the suburbs, which is high by the counties’ historical standards, even as statewide it dropped below 50 percent after consistently hovering around 60 percent since 2003.

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Here’s the usual caveat: arrest data are blunt, missing critical nuances that come only with knowing the particular facts and circumstances of each arrest. A pot-possession arrest, for instance, could be counted as such even though the arrestee was also being charged with assault and handgun violations. Or a pot-possession arrest could arise from only one charge, brought by a cop who wanted to take a problem citizen off the streets. The MSP data don’t tell such stories, but FSC still has found them to be a handy source for unearthing big-picture arrest trends.


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.