Police traffic searches dropped 70 percent in Burlington, Vt., after marijuana legalization
Marijuana Moment is a wire service assembled by Tom Angell, a marijuana legalization activist and journalist covering marijuana reform nationwide. The views expressed by Angell or Marijuana Moment are neither endorsed by the Globe nor do they reflect the Globe’s views on any subject area.
The largest local police force in Vermont is reporting that traffic searches are down 70 percent since the state legalized marijuana.
A report from the Burlington Police Department details the declining searches, which law enforcement officials are attributing to the fact that possession of up to one ounce of cannabis became legal for adults last summer. According to a report from WCAX, the data shows that traffic searches plummeted for individuals of all races.
On Tuesday, the Burlington Board of Police Commissioners will meet to discuss the report and its implications.
Dave Silberman, an attorney and pro bono drug policy reform advocate from Middlebury, said that Vermont’s reputation as a progressive state hasn’t squared with racial disparities in policing, noting a 2017 study that showed black and Hispanic drivers were “more likely to be pulled over than white drivers” and “four times as likely to have their cars searched as white drivers who’ve been pulled over.”
“Thus, it’s immensely gratifying to see that, one year after possession and personal cultivation of cannabis were legalized, Vermont’s largest police force searched 70 percent fewer drivers than in the year before legalization,” Silberman said. “We’ve taken away the pretextual excuse that cannabis possession gave police officers to harass drivers of color, and as a direct result, fewer drivers of color are being harassed.”
“This new data shows how important it is for us to keep pushing for drug policy and broader criminal justice reform statewide, and to proactively take away the tools of oppression, rather than waiting for police departments — no matter how well-intentioned — to reform themselves,” he added.
The Vermont city’s experience is consistent with those of other states that have legalized cannabis. In Colorado and Washington state, traffic stops dropped by about 50 percent in the years after the states implemented commercial marijuana markets for adults in 2012, according to a 2017 analysis.
And while fewer traffic stops for simple cannabis possession — and importantly, an accompanying reduction in racially disparate enforcement practices — is viewed as a positive development from a civil liberties perspective, it could also be helping law enforcement prioritize more serious crimes.
A study released last year found that as marijuana possession arrests declined in legal states, police started making more arrests for violent and property crime.