Pubdate: Mon, 26 Jun 2017
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2017 The Washington Post Company
Author: Christopher Ingraham


Drug policy experts often say that the health risks of marijuana use
are relatively minor compared to the steep costs of marijuana
enforcement: expensive policing, disrupted lives, violence and even

Law enforcement agencies, however, have often been at the forefront of
opposition to marijuana legalization. One reason is that the drug,
with its pungent, long-lasting aroma, is relatively easy to detect in
the course of a traffic stop or other routine interaction. It's an
ideal pretext for initiating a search that otherwise wouldn't be
justified -- even if that search only turns up evidence of marijuana
use and nothing more.

New data on traffic stops in Colorado and Washington underscore this
point: After the states legalized pot, traffic searches declined
sharply across the board. That's according to the Open Policing
Project at Stanford University, which has been analyzing public data
of over 100 million traffic stops and searches since 2015.

"After marijuana use was legalized, Colorado and Washington saw
dramatic drops in search rates," the study's authors explain. "That's
because many searches are drug-related. Take away marijuana as a crime
and searches go down."

In Colorado and Washington, traffic searches of black, Hispanic and
white drivers fell significantly after legalization, according to the
Open Policing Project's analysis. That pattern didn't hold for states
where marijuana use remained illegal.

The Project's data encompasses traffic searches initiated for any
reason but excludes searches following an arrest. This makes the data
a good barometer of searches initiated at an officer's discretion. The
numbers changed dramatically after legalization, as we see in the
above chart, suggesting, as the researches do, that suspected
marijuana use is often a factor in these searches.

As the chart also shows, legalization didn't eliminate racial
disparities in the searches. Black and Hispanic motorists are still
searched at considerably higher rates than white motorists. But
following legalization, they are searched less often than they were

In 2014 a Washington Post investigation detailed how highway police
often use suspicion of marijuana as justification to search drivers'
vehicles and ultimately seize cash and property from them, regardless
of whether any drugs are ultimately found. From 2002 to 2012, the
federal government seized roughly $1 billion in cash and other assets
related to marijuana cases, according to the Wall Street Journal.

That figure doesn't include seizures made by state and local law
enforcement authorities who handle most of the nation's drug

If legalization leads to fewer searches, that means fewer seizures of
cash and property, which could have a significant negative impact on
the finances of police departments that have come to rely on those
seizures to pad their budgets.
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