WASHINGTON – Marijuana arrests reached a five-year high in Maryland last year, as a surge in Baltimore City and Baltimore County cases drove the total to 19,990.
New numbers from the Maryland State Police showed that marijuana arrests grew by 8 percent over the 18,496 arrests in 2002. While the number of arrests grew, the percentage for possession — as opposed to dealing or growing — remained steady at 89 percent of the total.
Maryland’s numbers mirrored national arrest statistics, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report. It said arrests increased 9 percent last year, to 755,186, while the percentage of possession cases was stable at 88 percent nationally.
Experts said the increases do not necessarily indicate a widespread problem or a growth in marijuana use, but could simply reflect a shift in policing priorities and tactics.
“My guess would be that most of that increase is from Baltimore City,” said Charles Wellford, a University of Maryland criminology professor. “The city has been on a fairly substantial campaign to arrest low-level dealers and offenders.”
In fact, Baltimore City and Baltimore County accounted for 64 percent of the increase last year, with city police making 424 more marijuana busts than they did in 2002 and county police making 532 more.
City officers have been on the lookout for drugs of all types as part of the department’s strategy to reduce crime in Baltimore. That has snared not just marijuana users: Baltimore officers made 15,544 arrests for possession of cocaine last year, 79 percent of the state total.
“We significantly beefed up our drug unit,” said Matt Jablow, a city police spokesman. “We have more people out there doing buy-bust operations than ever before.”
Baltimore County Police have not launched a specific crackdown on marijuana, but investigate all complaints received, said Officer Shawn Vinson, a department spokesman.
Erin Artigiani of the Center for Substance Abuse Research at the University of Maryland said the increase in arrests is “certainly something to make note of,” but that it does not necessarily indicate a drug problem. The arrests have to be considered along with other indicators, such as admissions to drug treatment facilities or the number of students who report using marijuana and other drugs.
An increase reported by law enforcement as well as health care providers and educators would be cause for concern, she said.
But marijuana advocates said the increase in arrests is evidence that drug laws have been ineffective.
“Clearly our nation’s war on marijuana is a spectacular failure, and it’s time to think about whether there might be a better approach,” said Bruce Mirken, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project.
Mirken’s group successfully lobbied Maryland last year to allow medicinal use of marijuana, but he said he was aware of only one case where a medicinal defense has been raised since the law took effect in October 2003.
A Frederick County woman successfully claimed in April that she smoked marijuana to ease her chronic pain. She was granted probation and a $100 maximum fine under the law. Without a claim of medicinal use, the woman could have faced up to one year in jail and a fine of up to $1,000.
“This is simply crazy,” Mirken said of current laws. “Prohibition guarantees that the marijuana market is controlled by criminals.”
But Jablow said that Baltimore City officers are not concerned about whether or not marijuana laws make sense.
“As it stands right now, selling marijuana is illegal, and we will enforce that law,” he said. “We don’t pick and choose. We enforce all the laws of the city of Baltimore and the state of Maryland.”
-30- CNS 11-02-04