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October 11, 2012 at 10:33 AM

241,000 marijuana arrests in Washington over 25 years, costing $300 million

A new analysis of crime data has found more than 241,000 people in Washington were arrested for marijuana possession over the past 25 years, most of them in the past 10 years.

The report, by a New York-based group of academics, conservatively estimates those arrests cost $305,714,500 in police and court during the past 25 years, and $194,026,500 in the past 10 years, a figure that excludes the cost of defense and court fines.

The report underscores a key argument for Initiative 502, a measure on the November ballot, which would decriminalize small amounts of marijuana. Report co-author Harry Levine, a sociology professor at City University of New York, said his group is not funded by any of the large institutional donors to I-502; none of the authors contributed I-502, according to campaign finance reports.

But the timing is not coincidental, said Levine. “There is an intent to capture people’s attention about what is going on,” he said.

The data also underscores earlier findings about racial disproportionality in drug arrests. Although white people report use of marijuana at slightly higher rates than African-Americans or Latinos; blacks were arrested for marijuana possession at more than twice the rate of whites, and Latinos were arrested at rates more than 50% higher than whites.

At an I-502 debate Wednesday night, Baptist minister Leslie David Braxton, an I-502 supporter, made that point. He said there were “more black boys and girls in prison” than in colleges and universities, “not because we smoke more weed than white boys and girls, but because the laws are enforced in a discriminatory pattern.”

According to the data, 65,483 people were arrested in King County over the past 25 years, and 35,823 of them from 2000 to 2010. Based on criminal justice cost estimates, the bill for those arrests totaled at least $53,734,500 over the past 10 years. On a per-capita basis, Whitman County – home to Washington State University – had one of the highest rates of marijuana possession arrests.

Levine said it is impossible to tell if people were arrested for marijuana in addition to another crime because of the way the data is reported. But based on other studies, he believes a large majority of the arrests were for marijuana possession alone.

The report uses 25 years of data – 1986 to 2010 – from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, and extrapolates costs based on estimates by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy.

Levine said the report analyzed arrests – not convictions – because arrests also carry a heavy price. The report notes that some online criminal background check services include arrests, and the arrest reports cannot be easily expunged. “Contrary to what people think, the simple arrests carry enormous consequences way behind the fines and the night in jail,” said Levine.

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