Looks like it's gonna be pretty hard to get yourself arrested in California for holding a small amount of marijuana, according to a researcher with San Francisco's Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.
Mike Males has run some numbers released by California's Criminal Justice Statistics Center and found that marijuana possession, for adults at least, has been effectively decriminalized.
Arrests for marijuana possession fell 86 percent from 2010 to 2011, Males says, including a stunning 95 percent among adults.
The dropoff is the result of legislation sponsored by Bay Area state senator Mark Leno and signed into law by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2010. Passed just about a month before Californians voted down Proposition 19, which would have legalized marijuana for recreational use, SB 1449 made possession of an ounce or less of pot an infraction instead of a misdemeanor, shifting it into the same legal category as a traffic ticket. The law stipulates the fine for possession must not exceed $100. Possession of marijuana is still a misdemeanor offense if it occurs on school grounds, which accounts for the smaller 61 percent drop in arrests among juveniles, Males says.
Males told us he thinks the stats show that California's reform is more effective than outright legalization in reducing marijuana arrests because it doesn't have an age limit. "In other states, legalized marijuana specifies 21 and older; this is not very effective because half of all marijuana arrests are under 21. So [California's law] has brought down arrests among both youths and adults."
Males reported that all marijuana-related arrests in California -- including felonies for manufacture and sales -- dropped 70% in the time period studied.
Michael Montgomery, who reports on California's criminal justice system and drug laws for KQED, said he thought the numbers support the argument that low-level marijuana busts had been a significant factor in overall drug arrests. "By taking small-scale possession off the books, you get a significant reduction in the number of people being processed through the criminal justice system," he said.
The ACLU of Northern California put up a post today that also speaks to this point, in terms of the drop in juvenile arrests for a broader array of drug-related crimes:
The astounding 47 percent decrease in overall youth drug arrests revealed by this report also indicates that a large majority of young people being swept into the system are not violent criminals or drug kingpins – they are guilty only of possessing a small quantity of marijuana for personal use.
One of the arguments in favor of decriminalizing possession under an ounce was that doing so would save money. "The question is: how big are the cost savings?" Montgomery said. "We don't know the answer to that yet."