How Will Alaska’s Weed Law Affect Arrest Rates?

Feb 24, 2015 at 2:35 PM ET

Alaska has become the third state in the country to legalize recreational pot, but there are still loads of people in Alaskan prisons serving time for weed offenses. In fact, Alaska ranks 13th in the nation for marijuana possession arrest rates.

In Alaska, 64 percent of all drug-related arrests for both juveniles and adults are attributed to the possession or sale of marijuana, according to the Alaska Justice Statistical Analysis Center. (Drug-related arrests, however, account for only 5.4 percent of total adult arrests.) Once the statute comes into effect, adults ages 21 and older can possess up to an ounce of weed, while smoking in public remains illegal. As a result, a large portion of Alaska’s adult drug arrests—as many as 23,000 a year, based on 2011 figures—could simply go up in a puff of smoke.

An analysis by DrugPolicy.org cites 2.5 hours of police time taken to process every minor drug arrest. If Alaska were to reclaim that time by erasing, say, 20,000 arrests a year, it could win back 50,000 man hours for regular policing. That’s like finding $1.5 million in police budget down the back of the couch, even if you count the time of only Alaska’s lowest paid officers.

The loosening of the marijuana laws doesn’t mean Alaska will be turning loose anyone convicted under the old regime, though. “If you were sitting in prison for selling pot, you’re still there,” writes Matthew Fleischer, a guest blogger for the Los Angeles Times. And why is that? He continues, “It’s far easier to sell voters on the financial benefits of creating a lucrative new marijuana industry than it is to persuade them to open up the prison gates and set convicts free.”