A pedestrian walks past a neon sign advertising a California medical marijuana provider along a street in the Sherman Oaks section of Los Angeles in 2010. (Richard Vogel, Associated Press file)

California’s ‘de facto legalization:’ State still made nearly 500,000 pot arrests in past decade

Critics of legal marijuana say 'California has devolved into de facto legalization,' but a new report says there were nearly half a million pot arrests in the state between 2006 and 2015

California residents will decide whether to fully legalize the recreational use of marijuana this November in a vote that’s likely to have a major influence on marijuana policy in other states regardless of which way it goes.

One of the more nuanced arguments against legalization in California is that for all intents and purposes, marijuana is already legal there for people who want to get it. The state’s medical marijuana law, Prop. 215 enacted in 1996, is written broadly enough that patients can receive physician recommendations to take marijuana for just about any ailment.

The state furthermore decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana in 2011, making possession of up to an ounce of the drug a minor infraction akin to a parking ticket.

“Since Prop 215 (The Compassionate Use Act) was enacted in 1996, California has devolved into de facto legalization,” writes Citizens Against Legalizing Marijuana, one of the more strident voices against California’s legalization measure. A recent op-ed in the San Diego Union Tribune argues that “Californians no longer face the issue of teens or young people getting put in jail for minor marijuana possession, and we haven’t for decades.”

But a new report from the Drug Policy Alliance, a group that favors liberalizing drug laws, shows that far from “de-facto legalization,” tens of thousands of Californians are still getting arrested for marijuana infractions each year.

The report finds that “between 2006 and 2015, there were nearly half a million marijuana arrests in California,” citing data from the California Department of Justice. It further finds that while misdemeanor arrests plummeted following the passage of marijuana decriminalization in 2011, thousands of people are still arrested on marijuana misdemeanors each year, and thousands more arrested for marijuana felonies.

Following decriminalization in 2011 misdemeanor arrests dropped precipitously. But there are still a few thousand misdemeanor arrests each year, for things like possessing marijuana concentrates, keeping quantities of marijuana greater than an ounce, or giving marijuana away to others.

As you might expect, felony arrests have been more constant over the same period. Growing pot or possessing it with intent to sell outside of the existing medical framework have always qualified as felonies.

Under the proposed legal regulation on the ballot in November, possessing concentrates and giving away small quantities of weed would be fully legal, as would growing up to six marijuana plants at home. And sales of the plant would be legalized and taxed in a manner similar to the market currently in Colorado.

Beyond that, the report finds sharp racial disparities in marijuana arrests, similar to what other reports have shown nationally. Studies have shown that blacks and whites use and sell marijuana at similar rates. But in California blacks are roughly four times more likely to be arrested for any marijuana offense than whites are, according to the state’s arrest data.

This story was first published on WashingtonPost.com