Pot Busts Much More Likely in Some States, Counties

If you smoke pot, you're less likely to get busted in Pennsylvania or North Dakota than in Alaska or New York -- and much more likely in certain Texas counties, where 1 in 15 people have been arrested for marijuana smoking.
The risk of being arrested for marijuana smoking is far greater in some states than others, and far greater in some counties within a state than in other counties. So says a surprising new report that demonstrates the enormous inconsistency in the enforcement of drug laws across America.

An unlucky marijuana smoker in Alaska or New York, for example, is three times more likely to be arrested than a marijuana smoker in Pennsylvania, North Dakota or Hawaii. Similarly, a smoker in New York City is nine times more likely to be arrested than a smoker in Nassau County, New York, a suburb of the City.

On the west coast, a smoker in California's Trinity County (adjacent to Humboldt County, legendary home of much marijuana cultivation) is nine times more likely to be arrested than a smoker in Lassen County, which is only separated from Trinity by one county, Shasta.

The statistics all come from the NORML Foundation's (www.norml.org) most recent study, and were reported by the online drug reform magazine DRCNet (www.drcnet.org). According to the study's author, public policy analyst Jon Gettman, 38 percent of all marijuana arrests in the United States -- nearly 700,000 each year -- occur in only 10 counties.

"Very often, during academic or public debates with individuals who support marijuana prohibition, I'm confronted with the terrible myth that 'no one gets arrested for marijuana anymore!'" explained Alan St. Pierre, executive director of NORML. "Obviously this is not true."

The NORML Foundation's report seeks to dispel that myth and demonstrate the massive scope and burden of marijuana arrests on America's already overburdened criminal justice system. At the NORML web site, citizens can now look up marijuana arrests for the last three statistical years, for nearly every county in the United States. Not only is there a shockingly high amount of marijuana arrests -- an arrest every 45 seconds! -- but the vast majority of marijuana arrests (85 percent) are for possession only.

The report reveals a number of social trends and law enforcement patterns, including the high incidences of marijuana arrests in the following places:

- where major state and federal highways intersect
- border regions with Mexico and Canada
- international airports
- ski resorts
- State or National Parks/Wilderness Areas;
- university or college towns
- amusement and theme parks
- sports complexes and music venues

Gettman's study reviews county and state marijuana arrest data nationwide from 1995-97 (though detailed data was not available for the District of Columbia, Kansas or Vermont). Arrest counts and rates are provided in the report for 2,951 of the nation's 3,140 counties, accounting for 95.5 percent of the total estimated marijuana arrests for the year.

"While total marijuana arrests appear to be leveling off, they remain at the highest levels in United States history, both in absolute numbers and in terms of arrest rates," Gettman said. "The greater the level of arrests, the more important it has become for the government to justify these arrests and the accompanying economic and social costs."

In terms of state-wide numbers, Alaska had the highest arrest rate with 417.71 people arrested on marijuana charges per 100,000 population, followed closely by New York at 404.59. The marijuana arrest rate was the lowest in Pennsylvania with 125.57 per 100,000 population, followed by North Dakota (131.05) and Hawaii (134.37). The national average marijuana arrest rate was 256 per 100,000.

For those who may wonder about George Dubya's attitude toward pot, look no further than the fact that Texas contained five of the top 10 least reefer friendly counties in the country, and 12 of the top 25. Hudspeth, Texas, a tiny county with a population of 3,079 on the US-Mexico border, had the highest arrest rate in the country, at 6,430.66 per 100,000 residents -- about one out of every 15 people. Daggett County, Utah, a popular tourist area near both Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks, with a population of only 794, had the second highest arrest rate in the country at 5,289.67.

Among the most populous counties (populations over 250,000 people) the largely African-American Fulton County, Georgia claimed the most arrests -- 775.76 per 100,000. Douglas County, Nebraska came in a close second at 769.82.

According to St. Pierre, the NORML foundation believes that "one of the prime reasons for the increased number of marijuana-related arrests is the specter of forfeiture. Since the mid-1980s, law enforcement has been given awesome powers to seize assets from suspected (not convicted, or even arrested) citizens. And unlike other branches of government, law enforcement agencies can fund themselves with what they can rustle up on the side of the road, principally in the form of a traffic stop turned drug arrest." This financial incentive may motivate police to turn a simple traffic stop into a full blown search and seizure.

NORML's complete study, including state and national maps, Dr. Gettman's commentary and analysis, and charts ranking the 50 states and counties within each state, is available at www.norml.org/facts/arrestreport.