Policing By The Clock [AUDIO] | Common Sense for Drug Policy

27 Mar

Drug War Facts Editor Doug McVay reports for the Drug Truth Network and puts into context new research showing the amount of police time spent enforcing marijuana possession laws.

This 4:20 News report was first broadcast on March 24, 2013, as a segment on the syndicated weekly radio program Cultural Baggage produced in Houston, TX for KPFT-FM.

Research data used in this segment are available at
Drug War Facts, particularly the chapter on Crime. DWF fact items include full citations and where possible a link to the original source materials.

Following is the script. To listen to or download the full audio, please visit the Drug Truth Network.


It’s all in the timing.

According to new research, it takes an average of about two-and-a-half hours of police time to make one simple pot possession arrest in New York City. New York is a decriminalized state, so people in NY don’t necessarily go to jail just because they got caught in possession – especially if they’re a State Assemblyman, but that’s another story.

On average, people who get popped for pot in New York City do spend a great deal of time in custody: an average of at least 12 hours, according to this new research by Professor Harry Levine of Queens College, City University of New York. The report was recently released by the Drug Policy Alliance and the Marijuana Arrest Research Project.

Professor Levine found that from 2002 through 2012, the NYPD made a total of 439,056 low-level marijuana possession arrests. They estimated that given an average of 2.5 hours for each arrest – a conservative, low-ball estimate – that comes to 1,097,640 hours of police time over that period, or as it’s put in the report, quote:
“That is the equivalent of having 31 police officers working eight hours a day, 365 days a year, for 11 years, making only marijuana possession arrests.” End quote.

That’s just New York City, of course. Marijuana is decriminalized in New York state. In many other states, marijuana possession is still considered a real crime.

It’s not only the police whose time is taken up by low-level marijuana arrests, there’s also the time and resources of the prosecutor, the court, and possibly the jail or probation system.

In 2011, there were 663,032 arrests for simple possession in the entire US. If the rest of the country were like New York City, at just 2.5 hours per arrest, that would work out to 1,657,580 hours of police time in 2011 alone. The report’s hypothetical 31 police officers would work the equivalent of eight hours per day, 365 days a year, for more than 18 years to make that many marijuana arrests.

Each year, the FBI reports that US law enforcement manages to clear just under 50% of reported violent crimes and less than 20% of reported property crimes. Those are just the ones that get reported, mind you, and clearance doesn’t mean that anyone has been found guilty, only that someone has been indicted.

As legalizers and policy reformers, we’re accustomed to being accused by opponents of being soft on crime. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Law enforcement resources are strained, so the question is being asked: Are we using those resources effectively, or is it time for major changes?

For the Drug Truth Network, this is Doug McVay with Common Sense for Drug Policy and Drug War Facts.

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