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It's complicated: Marijuana law enforcement numbers in Anchorage

Oct 29, 2014

 

The Alaska Dispatch - There are numerous criminal justice statistics cited in support of and in opposition to Ballot Measure 2 (An Act to Tax and Regulate the Production, Sale, and Use of Marijuana). Recently, arrest numbers, prosecution outcomes, criminal sentencing practices, and incarceration rates, have all been referenced in ads, op-eds, and at debates.

Each of these statistics provides valuable information, but each represents only one aspect of the effect of marijuana on criminal justice in Alaska. The criminal justice system itself is comprised of multiple agencies (law enforcement, courts, corrections, each at local, state, tribal, and federal levels) which, while often working together, ultimately focus on separate tasks, then record, track, and monitor their progress differently and independently.
 
Focusing on arrests as the sole measure of the criminal justice impact of marijuana can be misleading. Often, marijuana crimes are accompanied by other criminal activity, so it is difficult to parse out what someone was actually “arrested for.” Many data sources will only report the most serious offense. Focusing on the number of prosecutions, convictions or incarceration rates does not provide an accurate overview either, because that number misses the people who had marijuana seized, but who were not prosecuted for marijuana offenses. Additionally, prosecutorial records, and any statistics drawn from them, may not be reliable indicators because as Dean Guaneli, former chief assistant attorney general for Alaska, pointed out in an Oct. 17 op-ed, to get the full view, “you have to look at the background facts in each case.”
 
As previous commentators have noted, no one in Alaska has completed a detailed analysis of marijuana-case processing from start to finish. Unfortunately, I do not currently have data for that either. But each piece of information is useful in light of the upcoming election. My goal is to bring another small amount of data to the public regarding this issue -- a piece of data that illustrates one aspect of the effect of marijuana on criminal justice in Alaska: interaction with the Anchorage Police Department.
 
I looked at the beginning of the process -- from the point police seized marijuana. Most other data sources (arrests, prosecution outcomes, sentencing, incarceration) deal with much later parts of the criminal justice system. None of these alone can provide a complete picture of marijuana-case processing in Alaska. Doing so is surprisingly complicated. (Readers are welcome to register for a few justice and legal studies classes at UAA to find out exactly why, but I will explain a few reasons here.)
 
I requested information on every incident in which APD seized any amount of marijuana from January 2010 through the latest date available, the end of June 2013. This allows me to describe all incidents in which marijuana was seized, regardless of whether an arrest was made or charges were ultimately filed -- capturing all instances where individuals encountered law enforcement because of marijuana.
 
An “incident” can start with a citizen call to police or through proactive policing such as a traffic stop. “Incident” is the basic unit of police work. Marijuana is seized in less than one-half of 1 percent of all police incidents in Anchorage. Marijuana was seized in about 3,400 out of nearly 900,000 police incidents from January 2010 through midyear 2013, the latest data made available by APD. While that is a small percentage of overall police incidents, APD seizes marijuana between two and three times a day, on average.
 
The typical marijuana seizure in Anchorage involves a small amount of marijuana -- 78.6 percent of incidents where marijuana was seized involved less than 1 ounce of marijuana. Over a third of incidents, 36.3 percent, involved less than 1/8 of an ounce of marijuana.
 
About three-quarters of incidents (76 percent) where marijuana was seized resulted in charges being referred to the prosecutor against at least one person. I examined what APD records noted was the primary, or most serious charge. The most common primary charge in these situations was use or display of marijuana (violation of AS 11.71.060(a)(1)). Nearly a third (31.4 percent) of persons had this as their primary charge. The next most common primary charges resulting from an incident where marijuana was seized were driving with no license or with a suspended license (10.6 percent), and possession of drugs within 500 feet of a school (10.2 percent).
 
Despite use or display of marijuana being the most common primary charge, most primary charges were for something other than marijuana use or possession. Over half (58 percent) of incidents where marijuana was seized began with a police response to something else, such as a disturbance or a burglary. Together with the primary charge data, this suggests either 1) that marijuana is most often seized during the investigation of other crimes which vary greatly, or 2) that marijuana use or display provides probable cause for a citizen to come to the attention of police, which then leads to more serious crimes being uncovered. Either way, the available evidence suggests that APD is not focused on making arrests solely for marijuana use, display, or possession.
 
Demographic data was available for incidents where a person was charged. Of persons charged, 18 percent were under the age of 18 at the time of the incident. Another 23 percent of persons were between the ages of 18 and 21 years. Persons over the age of 21 but under 30 were the largest group by age, comprising 32 percent of persons charged, with people in their 30s making up 15 percent of persons charged. Those 40 years and older made up 12 percent of persons charged. The available data on race is consistent with general trends in criminal justice, with minorities over-represented relative to their percentage in the Anchorage population.
 
I hope this has provided voters with more information to consider before heading to the polls in November. As I stated at the outset, these data do not present a complete picture of marijuana-case processing — doing that requires collecting, reviewing, analyzing, and synthesizing data from police departments, the state Department of Public Safety, Department of Law, Department of Corrections and the Alaska Court System. We do not yet have a comprehensive criminal justice data platform that would allow such cases processing analyses to be completed quickly.
 
Troy C. Payne, Ph.D. is assistant professor of justice at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He teaches data analysis, criminology, and crime mapping. His research has examined the effectiveness of policing and crime prevention strategies.
 
The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.
 
 

“If you choose to consume, please do so responsibly.” 

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