Blog Post

New DPA Report Documents Colorado's Massive Post-Legalization Drop in Marijuana Arrests

Jag Davies

(Updated 4/24/15) *Note*: Following the publication of this report last month, the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) was contacted by the Colorado Judicial Branch (CJB). The CJB notified DPA that some of the data CJB provided to DPA was incorrect. This post was revised on April 24, 2015 to reflect the CJB’s corrected data. While it’s unfortunate that we were provided incorrect data by the Colorado Judicial Branch, the report’s good news remains the same: Across all categories, marijuana arrests have drastically plummeted in Colorado following the passage of Amendment 64. 

All eyes are on Colorado to gauge the impact of the country’s first-ever state law to tax and regulate the sale of marijuana to adults 21 and older.  While marijuana shops, edibles, and the economic benefits of legalization have garnered much of the attention, it’s easy to forget that the main impetus for legalization was sparing people the injustice of getting handcuffed, arrested, and branded as criminals simply for marijuana.

Our work doesn’t usually end when a law is passed – the devil is often in the details of its implementation. New York, for instance, has long since decriminalized marijuana, but the police have still been arresting tens of thousands of people annually by exploiting loopholes.

A new DPA report brings some heartening news. Since 2010, Colorado’s marijuana possession charges are down by nearly 80%, marijuana cultivation charges also dropped nearly 80%, and marijuana distribution charges are down by 97%. The number of marijuana possession charges in Colorado courts has decreased from 8,736 in 2010 to just 1,922 in 2014. (Many of Colorado’s 2014 marijuana busts were for public consumption, which is still illegal, or for possessing more than the 1-ounce limit.)

This huge decline in overall marijuana enforcement has been especially helpful to the communities of color, who have unfairly borne the brunt of the war on drugs. Marijuana distribution charges among African-Americans have not increased, to the relief of racial justice advocates wary of a ‘net-widening’ effect following legalization.

At the same time, though, it’s worth noting that racial disparities in low-level marijuana arrests have continued, primarily due to the disproportionate rates of police contact in communities of color. The marijuana arrest rate for black people in 2014 was 2.4 times higher than the arrest rates for white people, just as it was in 2010 – even though the best available data shows that black people and white people use and sell marijuana at similar rates.

Another interesting tidbit: The report also revealed a decline in synthetic marijuana arrests – presumably because people are less likely to use synthetic marijuana when the real thing is no longer criminalized.

Colorado is clearly starting to reap enormous benefits from its groundbreaking decision to legally regulate marijuana. In January, DPA released Marijuana Legalization in Colorado: One-Year Status Report, which found that since the first retail marijuana stores opened on January 1, 2014, Denver has benefitted from a decrease in crime rates, and the state has shown a decrease in traffic fatalities while increasing tax revenue, economic output and employment opportunities.  Updated data reveals that the first year of legal retail marijuana sales resulted in $52.5 million in tax revenue excluding revenue from licenses, fees and medical marijuana.  Millions are allocated to fund youth education, drug prevention efforts and the improvement of public school infrastructures.  In addition, the state is enjoying economic growth and the lowest unemployment rate in years.

As momentum for marijuana reform grows throughout the U.S. and the world, Colorado is demonstrating that by focusing on public health rather than criminalization, we can better address the potential harms of marijuana use while undoing many of the worst harms of the war on drugs.

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