If voters approve it in November, the pending ballot initiative to legalize marijuana for recreational use in Arizona stands to eliminate several felony arrests each day in the city of Phoenix alone.
On average, the Phoenix police have arrested more than seven people a day since January 2015 for suspicion of marijuana possession, according to figures New Times obtained through a public-records request.
The numbers represent a decline from the roughly 10 people per day police arrested from 2012 to 2014. The decline was especially notable for juveniles, who were arrested nearly half as often in 2015 compared to other recent years.
Lieutenant Paul Taylor of the department's public-affairs bureau didn't offer any explanation for the decline when asked for a possible reason, such as a policy change. But he said he didn't dispute the figures, which came from the bureau's Crime Analysis and Research Unit.
Possession of any amount of marijuana up to two pounds is a Class Six felony in Arizona, which has one of the nation's toughest pot-prohibition laws on the books. Medical cardholders can possess up to 2.5 ounces legally, but most of the state's estimated 600,000 marijuana users take their chances with the law. Typically, a county prosecutor will reduce the felony charge to a misdemeanor or allow a defendant to escape a conviction by agreeing to take a drug-rehabilitation course. Even if convicted of a felony or misdemeanor for simple possession, first- and second-time drug offenders can't be sentenced to jail because of a law voters passed in 1996.
Yet most do a see the inside of a jail or city booking facility following their arrest by police for a felony. Nearly all adults are temporarily jailed during the booking process, Phoenix police have previously told New Times. The new statistics show that more than 25 percent of the children busted for pot were detained. The rest were cited and released to a parent or guardian.
Here are the numbers of possession-only cases as released by Phoenix PD and compiled by New Times.
2012: Approximately 3,000 adults arrested, 600 juveniles.
2013: 3,169 adults arrested, 465 juveniles.
2014: 3,162 adults arrested, 404 juveniles.
2015: 2,663 adults arrested, 278 juveniles.
2016: 1,254 adults arrested, 172 juveniles (through June)
Sheila Polk, Yavapai County Attorney and co-chair of a group lobbying to defeat the legalization measure, claims in published literature that "marijuana legalization does not mean fewer arrests."
That's incorrect, judging by the state's largest city.
Yet the new statistics don't give a perfect idea as to what won't happen, in terms of arrests, if voters approve the Regulation and Taxation of Marijuana Act (RTMA) in November. Many, if not up to half, of those arrested for marijuana possession may have been charged with other crimes, too. If that's the case, then they probably would have been arrested regardless.
Nor do the stats indicate the quantity of marijuana seized. Even if marijuana becomes legal for recreational use, possession of more than two pounds would remain a felony. (A spokesman with the Arizona Department of Public Safety told New Times in June that more than 90 percent of marijuana cases the state crime lab analyzes involve less than one ounce.)
Under the RTMA, residents 21 and older could legally possess an ounce or less, and anything between an ounce and 2.5 ounces would be a civil offense payable by a fine. Possession by those under 21, also a felony now, would become a petty offense subject to a $300 fine for amounts under an ounce. Possession of more than an ounce by a minor would remain a felony.
Clearly, then, police would continue to make some marijuana-possession arrests. But when it comes to busting cannabis consumers, the vast bulk of their work would be eliminated.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Phoenix New Times's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Phoenix's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
Paraphernalia charges related to marijuana would disappear as well. The RTMA would legalize "marijuana accessories," which include devices in which to carry or use marijuana. As things stand now, police have the option of submitting charges to prosecutors for both possession and paraphernalia when they bust someone with pot and a pipe. While Phoenix stats don't differentiate between pot-related paraphernalia bookings and those that involve other drugs, the RTMA would likely rid the state of thousands of paraphernalia charges each year.
Finally, the law would allow adults 21 and older to grow up to six plants in a discreet location, with a 12-plant-per-household maximum. Growing pot is currently a Class Five felony if the weight of the plants is less than two pounds.
The Phoenix PD has averaged about 30 cultivation arrests per year since 2012, the stats show. Yet in the past 12 months, the department has made just one cultivation arrest.
Perhaps it's time to start envisioning all the productive ways police officers could spend the time they currently devote to escorting cannabis consumers to jail.