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More Than Half a Million Californians Arrested for Marijuana Possession in Past Decade

Submitted by Phillip Smith on

According to figures from the California Criminal Justice Statistics Center, more than 550,000 people were arrested for misdemeanor marijuana possession in the Golden State between 1999 and 2009. Last year, 61,164 people were arrested for pot possession, down slightly from 2008's record 61,388.

The number of small-time marijuana arrests hovered at around 50,000 a year for most of the decade. But in 2007, it jumped to just under 60,000, and crossed that threshold in 2008.

Under California law, possession of up to an ounce is a misdemeanor punishable only by a maximum $100 fine for a first offense. But because it is a misdemeanor -- not a civil infraction -- each arrest requires a court appearance, leading to costs for the criminal justice system, as well as costs and a criminal record for the arrestee.

A bill, SB 1449, approved by the state legislature earlier this week would change the misdemeanor to a civil infraction. It awaits action on Gov. Schwarzenegger's desk. The Proposition 19 marijuana legalization initiative would allow people 21 or over to possess up to an ounce without fear of arrest.

An additional 135,000 people have been arrested on felony marijuana cultivation or distribution charges in the past decade. For all drug felonies, that figure rises to 1.4 million over the past decade. An additional 850,000 arrests were made for non-marijuana drug misdemeanors.

While last year's 78,514 marijuana arrests (felonies and misdemeanors) is an all-time high, arrests for other drug offenses are declining. Narcotics (heroin and cocaine) felony arrests peaked at more than 56,000 in 2007, but declined to just under 44,000 last year, while dangerous drug felony arrests have declined by half since peaking at nearly 93,000 in 2005.

The huge number of drug arrests in general and marijuana arrests in particular come as the state is experiencing its lowest crime levels in three decades and a skyrocketing criminal justice system budget. In 1968, total criminal justice system expenditures (law enforcement, corrections, courts, prosecutors and public defenders) were at about $100 million. By 1984, when crime rates had already begun falling, the criminal justice budget was at about $5 billion. Last year, it was about $33 billion, mostly for police ($17 billion) and prisons ($15 billion).

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


Abolitionist (not verified)

I don't use cannabis. But, I'm fed up with the war on cannabis users. Prohibition has not worked & never will since cannabis is now readily available nationwide. We must get back to reality & treat cannabis like alcohol & tobacco. Murders, rapes & other violent crimes have a terribly low clearance rate due to cops being diverted to busting pot users. I guess it's easier to go after pot smokers than dangerous criminals. Picking low-hanging fruit is what cops & lawyers call it. Visit for the truth from drug warriors now against prohibition.

Sat, 09/04/2010 - 3:03am Permalink
Giordano (not verified)

Once cannabis is legal and regulated in California, the focus can shift to some critical peripheral issues.

One such issue is the arrest records of more than a million Californians busted on marijuana charges.  Erasure of all weed-based arrest records will be a next step if legalization happens.  The benefits to society of such a move are incalculable.

Voting in November is the best opportunity many victims of the drug war have had to tend to their war wounds.  Money donations to, even if it’s a mere $10 from 500,000 California arrest victims, would raise $5-million before the election.

The end of the drug war will be a history making event.  California is the first step.  The obligation for drug war victims to participate in the war’s demise is absolute.  Opportunities like this won’t happen every day.


Sat, 09/04/2010 - 10:25pm Permalink

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