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Arrests down, but thousands still jailed for marijuana misdemeanors, study finds

Customers buy products at a medical marijuana dispensary in San Francisco in April. (Haven Daley / Associated Press)
Customers buy products at a medical marijuana dispensary in San Francisco in April. (Haven Daley / Associated Press)

The number of people jailed for marijuana misdemeanors in California has dropped significantly since possession was reclassified to an infraction, but thousands continue to be put behind bars each year, according to a study released Wednesday by supporters of legalization.

The study was commissioned by the group Drug Policy Alliance, which said the results show the need for Proposition 64, a measure on the Nov. 8 ballot that would legalize recreational use of marijuana, allowing Californians to possess and transport an ounce and authorizing retail sales.

The study looked at incarceration numbers in 12 of the state’s counties since former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a law in 2010 that made simple possession of an ounce or less of cannabis a non-criminal, ticketable offense.

The counties that responded, including Los Angeles, Orange, Santa Clara and Contra Costa, represent 47% of the state’s population and had 1,064 people in jail for marijuana-related offenses that remained felonies and misdemeanors in 2014.

The study by New Frontier Data estimated the number of those jailed statewide for marijuana-only offenses has dropped 21% from 2010 to 2015, when 2,139 people were jailed.

The study challenges claims by opponents of Proposition 64 that it is not needed because Schwarzenegger’s action essentially legalized pot, said John Kagia, an executive vice president for Frontier.

“One of the things that we have been hearing a lot in this debate from opponents is that nobody goes to jail for marijuana offenses,” Kagia said. “This settles that argument. That is not true. We have the hard data from the counties to prove that.”

Andrew Acosta, a spokesman for the opposition campaign, said the study “is not done by an independent organization” so he can’t comment on the numbers it provided.

"Regardless - as we have stated throughout this campaign - arrests for marijuana offenses have dropped dramatically since 2010 and as of today there is not one single person in California's prisons solely for simple marijuana possession," Acosta said.


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