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Pot decriminalization brings sharp drop in arrests in Baltimore City

Pot decriminalization brings sharp drop in arrests in Baltimore City
(Infographic by Charlie Herrick)

On Oct. 1, the Maryland law decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana went into effect. In Baltimore City, law enforcers immediately started making far fewer arrests: nearly a fifth fewer arrests overall in October and November, compared to the same months in 2013, including a 46-percent reduction in drug arrests, according to data on arrests processed at the Baltimore Central Booking and Intake Center.

The reasons for the drop in arrests are likely complicated and hard to pin on any particular cause or set of causes, but it coincides with the dawn of decriminalization in Maryland. The arrest data for September also show a significant drop—7.5 percent for all arrests, including a 23-percent drop in drug arrests, compared to September 2013—but the decline accelerated significantly after decriminalization.

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The Baltimore Police Department (BPD), asked to provide a statement about the trend, did not do so by press time. David Rocah, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Maryland's senior staff attorney, said the data suggests that "despite the dire predictions, as decriminalization occurs, overall crime goes down." He added that the 2010 settlement of the ACLU's illegal-arrest lawsuit against the BPD may have something to do with it, too, because "arrests in Baltimore have been in decline generally, reflecting a larger deprioritization of petty drug offenses."

The raw numbers are eye-popping. In July, there were 3,922 arrests processed at Central Booking, 1,231 of them for drug-related crimes, compared to 2,612 arrests in November, 654 of them for drugs. The share of drug-crime arrests out of all arrests in October and November of 2013 was nearly 40 percent and 36 percent, respectively, but this year the numbers were 26 percent and 25 percent.

The average age of people arrested for drugs rose notably in October and November compared to the same period last year. The average age of those arrested for drugs went from 33.7 in October and November last year to, this year, 34.5 in October and 35.2 in November.

The proportion of African-Americans arrested for drugs also dropped slightly, from 83.1 percent in October and November of 2013 to 82.4 percent for the same months this year. However, due to the general drop in arrests, the number of African-Americans arrested on drug charges in October (647) is half the number from last October (1,272).

The July data on arrests for possessing less than 10 grams of marijuana, the offense that was decriminalized on Oct. 1, gives credence to one of the rationales for passing the law: Enforcing the law fell disproportionately on young African-Americans, especially men, while largely sparing white people. In July, 197 arrests were made for small-amount pot possession, 16 percent of all drug-crime arrests. 183 of those arrests, or 93 percent, were of African-Americans, and 160, or 81 percent, were of African-American males. The average age of the African-American men arrested for small-amount pot possession in July was 28.5, nearly five years younger than for those arrested for all crimes that month. Eleven white people, less than 6 percent of the total, were arrested for this crime in July: eight men and three women.

The decriminalization memo from Annapolis apparently wasn't universally received in Baltimore, though, as two arrests were made for possessing less than 10 grams of marijuana in October, despite the fact that this was no longer a criminal charge. Both people arrested were African-American men.

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