Why Does Wisconsin Arrest Twice as Many People for Marijuana Possession as Minnesota?

In 2010, Wisconsin law enforcement agencies reported 16,111 arrests for simple possession of marijuana, including both adult and juvenile offenders. The same year, Minnesota agencies reported only 7,453. With this one glaring exception, Wisconsin is not otherwise noticeably more aggressive about making drug arrests. Wisconsin also made more possession arrests for other drugs than did Minnesota, but the gap was much less pronounced (4,807 to 3,737), while Minnesota actually outstripped Wisconsin by a considerable margin when it came to arrests for drug trafficking (6,382 to 4,832). So, it is not as if our neighbors to the west have declared a general truce in the War on Drugs, while we have doggedly fought on. Rather, there seems something specific about marijuana possession that is differentiating the two states.

It seems unlikely that differences in marijuana use could account for such a large difference in the arrest rates. Indeed, based on the National Survey of Drug Use and Health, it appears that marijuana use in Minnesota is, if anything, slightly higher than in Wisconsin. So, the differences in arrest rates probably result to a significant degree from differences in police behavior. What drives those differences is not immediately apparent from any data that I have seen.

As I have observed in earlier posts, differences in criminal-justice outputs between the two states cry out for justification because the two states are so similar in population size and crime rate. 

Indeed, I began this series of occasional blog posts in order to try to better understand why it is that Wisconsin’s per capita incarceration rate is more than twice Minnesota’s. Given generally light sentences in this area, marijuana possession arrests do not likely make a large, direct contribution to the overall incarceration disparity. However, there may be significant indirect effects. Probationary sentences, for instance, can lead to incarceration if the terms of release are not obeyed. Moreover, arrests and convictions in even minor cases become part of a criminal history that makes an offender more likely to experience arrest and conviction in more serious cases later on, as well as tougher sentences if there are any subsequent convictions. Then, too, criminal history of any sort diminishes employability in mainstream job markets, which may increase the likelihood of more serious criminal activity in the future.

Whatever the cause of Wisconsin’s arrest rate, there is clearly a racial dimension to it, whether intentional or not. The marijuana possession arrest rate for black adults is nearly six times higher in Wisconsin than the rate for whites (1,255 per 100,000 residents versus 217). The racial disparity among juveniles is also quite pronounced (585 per 100,000 black; 189, white).  Yet, surveys indicate that levels of marijuana use are at most only slightly higher for blacks than whites (e.g., 9.8% of blacks report using marijuana in the past month, as opposed to 8.5% of whites).

Cross posted at Life Sentences.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.