By Van Smith
Baltimore, Feb. 8, 2019
The statewide phenomenon of police in Maryland disproportionately arresting African Americans on drug charges is profoundly clear in FSC’s analyses of Maryland State Police (MSP) crime data. (And it’s an ongoing problem in Baltimore City, starkly reported by Baltimore Fishbowl in December.) But in the Baltimore region, another disparity also leaps out from the data – while city police are only occasionally arresting people for cannabis possession now, suburban cops have hardly reined in their pot-arrest instincts.
What’s more, Baltimore City and the surrounding suburban counties have switched places when it comes to the prevalence of cannabis-possession arrests since 2010. The city saw one such arrest for every 90 residents in 2010, while in the suburbs the figure was one in every 320 residents. In 2016, the surburban number had inched up to one in every 580 residents – but in the city, it had climbed precipitously to one pot-possession arrest for every 1,280 residents, a striking change.
The chart above shows the switch started to occur around 2013, when roughly the same number of pot-possession arrests occurred in the city versus the suburbs. After that, the city’s number of such arrests dropped to below 500 a year, while in the suburbs – the data are for Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford, and Howard counties – they remained in the high 3000s.
Pot-possession enforcement in Baltimore City has become almost rare, with a rapid drop in the proportion of all drugs arrests that were for pot possession starting in 2014 – and falling to below 10 perent thereafter. In the surrounding counties and statewide, though, enforcement intensity remains high – nearly 50 percent in the suburbs, which is high by the counties’ historical standards, even as statewide it dropped below 50 percent after consistently hovering around 60 percent since 2003.
Here’s the usual caveat: arrest data are blunt, missing critical nuances that come only with knowing the particular facts and circumstances of each arrest. A pot-possession arrest, for instance, could be counted as such even though the arrestee was also being charged with assault and handgun violations. Or a pot-possession arrest could arise from only one charge, brought by a cop who wanted to take a problem citizen off the streets. The MSP data don’t tell such stories, but FSC still has found them to be a handy source for unearthing big-picture arrest trends.