You might feel pretty cozy taking bong rips in your apartment on the gentrified part of town, but let's be real: a few blocks away, people are getting charges tacked onto their rap sheets for doing the same thing.
According to the latest data available from the FBI, there were about 1.5 million drug busts in the U.S. during 2013, accounting for the biggest bulk of all types of arrests made nationwide (about 11.3 million) for that year.
But how is the war on drugs actually playing out in your neighborhood? The national data doesn't show it. Only locally gathered data, compiled by organizations like the U.S. City Open Data Census, can help us see how things are actually panning out on a block to block level. Project Know, a drug addiction resource center, recently started playing with this data, releasing the first of a series called Arrests Across America. Eight cities are featured in the first edition.
Take Chicago. When mapped block by block, the bulk of the total drug arrests made in the city between January and October 2014 are happening within just a handful of neighborhoods. "Each dot, representing a single event," reads the report, "is accurate to the block level."
Another image compiled from the group shows the clusters of drug busts, mapped alongside poverty levels and population density. Notice anything there?
"While the most densely populated areas of Chicago—and any city—are most likely to contain the highest number of drug arrests, in Chicago’s case, it goes a bit beyond that," reads the Project Know report. "The map above shows drug violations by ward, per 1,000 residents—in effect, removing population size as a factor. If you squint, it looks almost identical to the poverty level and violation locations maps."
Arrests for all tracked drugs—marijuana, cocaine (and its "derivatives," AKA crack), heroin—follow a similar trend in the data pulled from most other cities, including San Francisco, centering around the impoverished, minority-majority neighborhood of the Tenderloin.
But just like Chicago (and this is a common trend) the bulk of all arrests in San Fran is for marijuana. Together, these smalltime marijuana busts make up 31 percent of all drug arrests/citations in the city. (Yes, recreational marijuana is still technically illegal in California.)
The legal status of marijuana appears to be a major factor in where police are putting their efforts. The following graphs show Denver between January 2013 to October 2014—a period in which marijuana became legal.
During that time, only 729 arrests for marijuana were made, compared with 2,775 for cocaine (and crack!) and 1,317 for methamphetamines. The bulk of these arrests were made around the Five Points neighborhood, which is the city's historically black neighborhood that has been referred to as "the Harlem of the West" for its history, dating back to the jazz age.
That change on marijuana policy remains an outlier. Take Baltimore, for example, where 67 percent of all drug-related arrests between January 2013 and October 2014 were marijuana-related. According to data from Open Baltimore, police made an average of 14 arrests related to marijuana a day, compared to 3.3 for cocaine and 3 for heroin, respectively.
However, starting in October 2014, toward the tail end of the period covered by this data, possession of up to 10 grams of marijuana became a civil offense rather than a criminal one. So in the future, these numbers will likely look different.
Arrests in Baltimore are largely centered around Upton, Hollins Market, Arlington and Broadway East—again, highly impoverished, minority-majority neighborhoods.
A different city with a similar size and population as Baltimore, Raleigh, North Carolina, has a different, more spread out issue than most other cities: synthetic drugs.
While arrests for the usual suspects (weed, crack, H) stay pretty confined to their respective bubbles, synthetic drug arrests are distributed across the map, with no clear epicenter.
But still, those arrests only make up for three percent of all drug arrests in the city between October 2012 and October 2014. A full 74 percent of arrests were for marijuana, followed by 23 percent for cocaine/crack/opium (combined).
This brings us to the many issues of dealing with disparate data sets. A lot of cities don't even track synthetic drug busts in a class of their own. In fact, a lot of cities don't even classify arrests by drug type. These last few cities' data only describe arrests with vague terms like "drug/ narcotics," says the Project Know report.
"What’s clear is that as changes in marijuana legislation continue to spread across the country (as of June 2014, 23 states classed medical marijuana as legal), so too will changes in drug arrest and citation rates for its possession," reads the report. "Arrests for the sale and possession of other, more serious drugs will surely fluctuate as well, albeit for different reasons."
Enforcing laws on marijuana possession costs taxpayers about $3.6 billion a year, according to a study from the American Civil Rights Union.
Further, blacks are 3.7 times more likely to catch a charge for simple marijuana possession, the ACLU report found, even though they use marijuana at about the same rate as whites. Couple that with the fact that blacks are about 10 times more likely to go to jail for a drug offense, and things can quickly get out of hand.
"Even if a person never goes to prison, the conviction itself is the tip of the iceberg," notes a New York Times editorial on marijuana laws from last year. "In a majority of states, marijuana convictions — including those resulting from guilty pleas — can have lifelong consequences for employment, education, immigration status and family life."
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.