Over the past century, millions of Americans have been put behind bars for dealing, buying, or simply smoking pot, but as more and more states legalize the once-demonized plant, these numbers are finally beginning to fall. In Washington state, where recreational cannabis has been legal since 2012, marijuana-related convictions plunged by 90% in the first 18 months after retail stores opened.
The Washington State Caseload Forecast Council conducted an analysis of pot-related felony convictions both before and after the onset of legalization. Between June 2008 and December 2009, 1,312 individuals were sentenced with felonies for manufacturing, delivering, or possessing cannabis with the intent to distribute. In the 18 months immediately after adult-use retail stores opened in 2014, only 147 people were charged with pot-related felonies, a decrease of almost 90%.
Unlike other states where potential tax revenue is a primary focus of legalization, Initiative 502 — the voter-approved measure that legalized pot in Washington — was written with social justice in mind. "It's really heartening," ACLU of Washington director of strategy Alison Holcomb, who authored and sponsored I-502, said to Oregon National Public Radio affiliate KLCC. "These are strong signs that this was the right policy choice for Washington State voters to make and we're really grateful that they had the courage to do it."
I-502 specifically emphasized the fact that putting an end to cannabis prohibition would free up police resources, allowing cops to tackle serious crimes. "And I think this data reflects that that's in fact what happened," Holcomb said. "Law enforcement is realizing that it's more important for them to be investigating different types of offenses that involve, for example, violence or property theft and destruction."
Some law enforcement officials within the state are concerned that police are getting too lax with regards to weed, allowing a black market to thrive while cops are looking the other way. Steve Strachan, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, told KLCC that cannabis legalization allowed his officers to direct their resources to cracking down on illegal opioid abuse, but added that “we need to direct more resources to the illicit [marijuana] grows that we are seeing across the state.”
Washington’s massive drop in cannabis felony convictions has been mirrored in other canna-legal states. After Proposition 64 legalized adult-use cannabis in California, felony pot arrests dropped by 74%, and Oregon, Colorado, and Washington D.C. have seen similar decreases in pot convictions. But even as arrests decrease in states with legal weed, the total number of pot arrests has been increasing nationwide. In 2016, over 650,000 Americans were locked up for weed, more than were arrested for all violent crimes combined, highlighting the fact that cannabis reform still has a long road ahead.