Marijuana enforcement numbers sky-high

Arrests and citations

Arrests and citations for marijuana possession on the increase:

2004: 60 simple misdemeanor cases in Douglas County, before city ordinance.

2006: 134 municipal citations, after city ordinance.

2008: 162 municipal citations.

2010: 237 municipal citations.

2012: 206 municipal citations.

Racial disparities in marijuana possession arrests per capita, according to ACLU study of federal data:

Douglas County: 3.7 times higher for black residents than for white residents.

Kansas: 4.4 times higher for black residents than for white residents.

United States: 3.73 higher for black residents than for white residents.

A city ordinance downgrading first-time marijuana possession to a municipal offense, to be met with a ticket rather than handcuffs, was seen by both supporters and detractors as a softer approach to drug crime when it was enacted in 2005.

Eight years later, the result has been, by some measures, quite the opposite.

The number of people arrested or cited in Lawrence for marijuana possession, on a first or subsequent offense, has increased nearly six-fold over the past ten years, according to a study of federal data released this summer by the American Civil Liberties Union. The study also pointed to racial disparities in enforcement, with black residents four times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession, even though the two groups use the drug at about the same rates.

That the marijuana ordinance did not turn out to be the pro-pot law that some had feared, or hoped for, might not come as much of a surprise to some.

The idea was to move the first-offense possession prosecution from district court, which triggered a federal law that could affect student loan eligibility, to city court, where the process was much like getting a ticket. The flip side of that is that writing a ticket is relatively easy and quick, making the decision to cite someone for possession easier for a busy law enforcement officer.

And although proposed by a group seeking fewer penalties for marijuana offenders, the ordinance actually ended up increasing fines after it was reworked by the city commission and passed in March 2005.

More enforcement, stricter penalties

Instead of the typical $25 or $100 fines levied in Douglas County District Court at the time, the new ordinance required a minimum $200 fine. That, in turn, was later increased to $300 to make it equal to the fine for a minor possessing alcohol, said Elizabeth Hafoka, a Lawrence city prosecutor. Defendants also pay court costs and, if they are convicted, pay for drug evaluations.

More people have been cited or arrested each year, and Douglas County ranked number five in the nation for the largest increase in marijuana enforcement over 10 years, according to the ACLU. Using arrest data the FBI gathers from local law enforcement here and around the country, the ACLU study showed a 580 percent increase in Douglas County’s arrest rate: about 170 per 100,000 residents in 2010, up from 25 per 100,000 in 2001. Generally, a citation is counted as an arrest, even if the person is not actually handcuffed.

Law enforcement officials in Douglas County don’t keep statistics on marijuana possession arrests specifically, but data from the city and district courts show that the number of cases rose dramatically after the 2005 ordinance took effect.

A review of district court records showed about 60 simple misdemeanor marijuana cases, as distinct from those combined with more serious offenses or felony drug crimes, in 2004. In 2006, after the ordinance was in effect, 134 such cases went to city court. Six years later, city prosecutors saw more than 200, apart from other cases that went to the district court because they involved juveniles or occurred outside the city.

The increase locally comes at a time when drug possession arrests are decreasing at the national level.

There hasn’t been a push to make more arrests specifically for marijuana possession in Lawrence, said Sgt. Trent McKinley, a Lawrence Police Department spokesman. If more of those cases are being made in recent years McKinley said, the 2005 ordinance is likely the reason.

“It is faster to write a ticket than to arrest somebody,” McKinley said. While a ticket can be completed in minutes, an arrest means an officer must write a three-page offense report, take evidence, write an affidavit for the court, and possibly transport the person to jail. It could take hours, especially if the case goes to trial.

The possibility of steady yearly increases in citations wasn’t something the city commission discussed when considering the ordinance, said Mike Amyx, vice mayor of Lawrence and a member of the commission in 2005. For him, the key point in the ordinance was to allow first-time offenders to avoid going to district court and triggering federal rules that block those convicted of drug crimes from receiving student loans. “The fine was an issue,” Amyx said. “Our concern at the time was, ‘It’s a first offense, and what’s the penalty going to be?'”

The city’s marijuana ordinance allows only first-time marijuana possession offenses to be heard in city court, and any future offenses go to the district court as felony cases.

Claims of racial bias, locally and nationally

In Douglas County, the federal data on marijuana possession arrests mirrored a troubling national trend that is found in nearly every community, according to the ACLU.

“We have serious concerns about racial disparities in how police enforce laws designed to prevent the use of marijuana,” said Gary Brunk, executive director of the ACLU of Kansas and Western Missouri, who was not involved in the study but works on such issues locally.

In Douglas County, the arrest rate for black residents, adjusted per capita, for marijuana possession was almost four times higher than the rate for white residents. Almost the exact same disparity was found across the state and the U.S., even though surveys by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration show white and black people use the drug at about the same rate. Some jurisdictions in Kansas show even greater disparities, such as Saline County, where the per capita arrest rate for black people is six times higher than it is for whites. Some, such as Leavenworth County, show a lower, two-fold disparity.

McKinley, of the Lawrence Police Department, declined to speak to the study’s conclusions until he could examine it further, he said.

Those racial disparities come from selective policing, which, along with the high cost of enforcement and unclear benefits, pointed to a failure of efforts to enforce drug laws, according to the study author, Ezekiel Edwards, director of the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project. “The war on marijuana has largely been a war on people of color,” he wrote.

Meanwhile, marijuana use in Lawrence appears to continue unabated, despite increased enforcement of low-level possession offenses, and bigger cases such as the indictment of a multimillion-dollar marijuana smuggling conspiracy here last year. In a survey of Lawrence high school students conducted last year by Draw the Line Lawrence, a local group against drug and alcohol abuse, more than a quarter of high school seniors in Lawrence reported using marijuana at least once in the previous month.