Pubdate: Fri, 08 Nov 2019
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2019 The New York Times Company
Author: Susan Stellin


Despite bipartisan calls to treat drug addiction as a public health
issue rather than as a crime - and despite the legalization of
marijuana in more states - arrests for drugs increased again last year.

According to estimated crime statistics released by the F.B.I. in
September, there were 1,654,282 arrests for drugs in 2018, a number
that has increased every year since 2015, after declining over the
previous decade. Meanwhile, arrests for violent crime and property
crime have continued to trend downward.

Drugs have been the top reason people have been arrested in the United 
States for at least the past 10 years, and marijuana has been the top drug 
involved in those arrests.

The percentage of drug arrests that have been for possession (instead of 
for sale or manufacturing charges) has also risen, to 86 percent last year 
from around 67 percent in 1989. And the majority of drug arrests have 
involved small quantities.

"We've gotten so used to the idea that this is normal to arrest so many 
people for tiny amounts of drugs, but it's not normal," said Joseph E. 
Kennedy, a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law who 
was an author of a paper titled Sharks and Minnows in the War on Drugs: A 
Study of Quantity, Race and Drug Type in Drug Arrests.

Although many arrests don't result in conviction - some are dismissed and 
some result in pleas to a lesser offense - any drug conviction can harm 
employment, housing and educational prospects. And this continues to 
disproportionately affect African-Americans and Hispanics, even as many 
conservatives have joined liberals in saying that racial disparities in 
the criminal justice system need to be addressed.

The F.B.I. annual report compiles information from thousands of law
enforcement agencies that voluntarily participate in its Uniform Crime 
Reporting (U.C.R.) program. Of the 18,586 federal, state, local and other 
agencies eligible to participate, 16,659 submitted data for 2018, so the 
arrest statistics are estimates that don't include some jurisdictions, 
like New York City.

Drug arrests are classified into four categories: 1) heroin or cocaine and 
their derivatives, 2) marijuana 3) synthetic or manufactured drugs like 
fentanyl and 4) other dangerous non-narcotic drugs like barbiturates.

In 2018, there were 663,367 arrests involving marijuana, up from
659,700 in 2017, nearly 92 percent of them for possession. The
F.B.I.'s crime data includes only the top charge for each arrest, so
if a suspect is found with drugs while being arrested on a more
serious charge, the drug possession would not be counted in the
agency's statistics.

"I always caution people to read the U.C.R. data as an approximation 
because it's imperfect," said Tess Borden, a staff attorney with the 
American Civil Liberties Union who worked on a report published by the 
A.C.L.U. and Human Rights Watch in 2016: Every 25 Seconds: The Human Toll 
of Criminalizing Drug Use in the United States.

According to New York State's Division of Criminal Justice Services,
there were 75,897 arrests for drug felonies and misdemeanors in New
York in 2018, which includes any arrest where fingerprints were taken.

About 35 percent of those arrests involved people who were identified as 
white; 37 percent as black; 25 percent as Hispanic; and 2 percent as 
Asian. The remainder were listed as other/unknown. (In New York State, 
blacks make up 18 percent of the population, and Hispanics 19 percent.)

"We know from national survey data that people of all races use drugs in 
their adult lifetimes at approximately the same rates," Ms. Borden said. 
"So the fact that we have great variances in who is arrested tells us 
about police priorities."

In 2021, the F.B.I. plans to begin using its National Incident-Based
Reporting System to track crime data, which has more detail about a
greater number of crimes.

This reporting system also contains information about the quantity of 
drugs involved in an arrest. Analyzing 700,000 drug arrests using this 
data for 2004, 2008 and 2012, the authors of the "Sharks and Minnows" 
paper found that about 40 percent of those arrests were for possessing or 
selling a quarter of a gram or less of drugs. And 20 percent were for 
possessing or selling drugs weighing between 0.25 grams and one gram. (A 
packet of Splenda sweetener weighs one gram.)

Mr. Kennedy wrote the paper with Isaac Unah, associate professor of
political science at U.N.C.-Chapel Hill, and Kasi Wahlers Robinson, a 
graduate of the University of North Carolina School of Law now in
private practice. Their analysis found that although the highest
number of drug arrests involve marijuana, some key differences drive
racial disparities that flow through the criminal justice system.

"Whites are mainly arrested for heroin and meth, among the hard drugs, and 
blacks are much more likely to be arrested for crack," Mr. Kennedy said. 
"But we don't arrest as many people for heroin and meth."

It's not clear why drug arrests are rising after a downturn in those
arrests from 2006 to 2015. It may reflect in part a tougher
enforcement approach begun under Jeff Sessions by the current
administration, even with respect to marijuana. Even in states where
marijuana is legal, people can still be arrested if they violate state 
laws like limits on the amount allowed for personal use. And
increasing use nationwide - perhaps with an assumption of more
leniency - may put more people at risk of arrest. According to the
2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 43.5 million people 12
and older used marijuana in the past year, a number that has risen
since 2011.

Public opinion has shifted decisively in favor of marijuana
legalization. But Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police
Executive Research Forum, pointed out that 39 states haven't passed
laws making recreational marijuana legal, and that police practices
and attitudes toward drugs vary among law enforcement agencies across the 
nation. "Some departments still see arrest as a measure of productivity, 
even though many of us see that as outdated," he said.

Mr. Wexler says the overdose epidemic has contributed to how police
departments respond to drugs, particularly in communities that lack
diversion programs like the one in Seattle.

"Today you have more recognition that you need to get people into
treatment, but treatment is expensive and resources aren't equal
around the country," he said, adding that "in many parts of the U.S., 
arrest is viewed as the only alternative that they have."

Better data collection and reporting about drug arrests would help
inform policy as attitudes toward the drug war shift, particularly
with respect to marijuana.

"Anyone who's spending money and law enforcement resources on this
needs to be keeping track of this data," said Mr. Kennedy, the U.N.C. law 
professor. "We have a right to know who we are arresting."

Susan Stellin is a reporter, researcher and adjunct professor in the
Journalism + Design department at The New School in New York. She
recently earned a master's in public health from Columbia University, 
focusing on research methodology and drug policy.
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