Legalizing Marijuana Could Save At Least $1.3M in Annual Jail Costs, Two Years of Officers' Time

Legalizing up to an ounce of marijuana in Arizona could save taxpayers at least $1.3 million in jail booking costs alone, plus more than two man-years of police officers' time.

New Times came up with the figures by analyzing jail bookings and costs in Maricopa County, along with arrest statistics from the Arizona Department of Public Safety.

If voters approve Proposition 205 in November, anything up to an ounce of marijuana and five grams of concentrates will be legal to possess. Currently, any amount of marijuana is a felony, and many — if not most — of the adults caught with pot are taken to jail.

Different police agencies have different policies in pot-possession cases: Phoenix, for example, takes all adults to jail. Cities like Mesa and Glendale, however, have a policy that allows the officer to decide whether to take the offender to jail or cite and release him or her at the scene.

When cities opt for the former, the offender is booked into county jail, because the alleged charge is a felony.

Through August 31 of this year, an average of 503 people per month were booked into Maricopa County jail on simple marijuana-possession charges, county statistics show.

That means slightly more than 6,000 people will have been booked on those charges by year's end. (The actual figure between January 1 and August 31 is 4,682 people booked.) It also means that on any given day, at least 16 people — on average — are booked into the jail on a marijuana-possession charge.

Officials with the Arizona Department of Public Safety say that more than 90 percent of all seized marijuana tested by police at the state laboratory weighed an ounce or less, meaning that amount would be legal under Prop 205.

Taking 90 percent of Maricopa County's pot booking numbers and multiplying by the $285.94 cost of booking someone in fiscal year 2015-2016, the total is $1.34 million for the year. And that's just for Maricopa County, the largest of Arizona's 15 counties.

As mentioned, depending where the bust occurs, the marijuana suspect may be "long-formed" and not taken to jail. DPS statistics show that 12,987 adults were arrested for marijuana possession statewide in 2015. Without a detailed analysis of all 15 counties, it's not possible to know the total statewide cost of booking people into jail for marijuana possession. But logically, it must be at least a few hundred thousand dollars more, once Pima County (home to Tucson, the state's second-largest city) and other population centers in Arizona are included.

Sergeant Diana Williams, spokeswoman for Mesa police, couldn't provide a breakdown of how many people were long-formed and released versus taken to jail for pot possession.

"If somebody has a usable quantity of marijuana, a valid ID, and a clean history, we'll mostly likely long-form," Williams said.

Yet writing the felony citation long-form still takes an officer one to two hours, according to Williams.

Assuming it takes 1.5 hours for an officer to either long-form or book someone into jail, that adds up to 17,550 man-hours — or two full man-years — that officers spent on the ounce-or-less cases throughout the state in 2015.

Eliminating these 11,700 possession arrests with under Prop 205, then, would save an enormous amount of time for police officers, allowing them to address more serious crimes. It would also save time for jail staff, court staff, and prosecutors. In the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, for instance, simple marijuana-possession cases combined with marijuana-paraphernalia charges likely make up the single-largest category of felony cases the agency handles.

While the courts and prosecutors' offices would save time, it's not clear how much money Prop 205 would save them, because marijuana offenders pay fees, fines, and court costs that may — in the case of prosecutors' offices — result in a profit.

Some of the people in the analysis were booked not just on marijuana charges, but were suspected of other crimes, too. That means an unknown fraction of those suspects would have been arrested whether or not they were in possession of marijuana at the time.

However, attorney Tom Dean, whose practice focuses on marijuana cases, says New Times' numbers likely are conservative — that is, the monetary cost and officer time in marijuana cases statewide are probably higher than calculated here. Without the felony marijuana charge, marijuana-possession cases that involve allegations of misdemeanor crimes wouldn't necessarily involve a trip to jail, Dean says.

Dean points out that the MCSO stats didn't take into account cases of possession of marijuana concentrates like hashish, which would be legal in small quantities under Prop 205 but are now considered serious "narcotics" felony violations under current state law.

Another factor is that Prop 205 would make between an ounce and 2.5 ounces a petty offense, meaning that beyond the outright legalization of 90 percent of felony marijuana-possession charges, even more than 90 percent would no longer be arrestable offenses. 

The MCSO wasn't able to provide New Times information on the average length of stay for people booked into jail on marijuana-possession charges. If a person stays for the whole day, or more than a day, an additional $85.49-per-day cost would apply. But those extra costs don't usually apply for simple possession cases.

Under a 1996 drug-law reform measure approved by voters, authorities are prohibited from sentencing someone to jail or prison for a first or second possession offense, unless the person refuses to accept probation terms. In nearly all marijuana-possession cases, if a person is booked into jail, he or she is released within a few hours, Dean says.

Prop 205 wouldn't only save money by reforming the state's felony-prohibition law for cannabis, either — it would derive income by taxing 600,000 Arizona adults 21 and older for something they're already doing. State budget analysts predict that the treasuries of the state, cities, and counties would see a windfall of more than $120 million in taxes and fees because of Prop 205 by 2020.
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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.