Do Cannabis “Desert” States Arrest More People After Neighbors Legalize? Probably Not.

February 29, 2024

Cannabis legalization has spread to states once considered unlikely, like conservative-leaning Missouri and Ohio. Law enforcement in neighboring cannabis “desert” states—those with no legal access, even medical—have warned residents that it won’t stop them enforcing criminal charges for marijuana if it’s brought over the state line. But in Kansas, according to a new report, arrest rates seem similar to or slightly lower than before Missouri legalized in 2022.

Reporting for the Kansas City Beacon, Blaise Mesa interviewed state and local police agencies in Kansas, to compare marijuana arrests before and after Missouri legalized. Reaching definite conclusions is difficult when not all police agencies collect data the same way, and the data they do collect isn’t available to see immediately. But based on available information, it appears that legalization in Missouri has had little effect on Kansas arrests.

Here are some of the stats the Beacon discovered:

* Police in Kansas City, Kansas, made 55 more marijuana arrests in 2023 (241 total) than in 2022. But total seizures of cannabis dropped from 108 to 22 pounds.

* Overland Park police made 23 fewer arrests (166 total).

* Pittsburg police made 17 fewer arrests (18 total), but seizures increased from 2,541 to 6,686 grams, an increase mostly accounted for by a single month.

* Leavenworth police made five more arrests (28 total).

* Kansas Highway Patrol made eight fewer “significant seizures” of cannabis over 1 pound (76 total). But their data don’t include simple possession arrests.


Some Law Enforcement Attitudes a Factor

Some Kansas police departments and prosecutors are choosing to look the other way with weed, and prioritizing going after other substances or charges. The Beacon cited law enforcement sources who gave various reasons for not making marijuana arrests—they are short on officers, or they only make arrests when there are other charges associated with the activity, or they choose to give citations instead for marijuana.

The district attorney of Douglas County (home to Lawrence) has effectively decriminalized marijuana possession for over 10 years by choosing not to prosecute such cases. DA Suzanne Valdez described it as a waste of time and money for her office, and said the policy is not changing.

At the city level, however, progress has been slow. In 2022, Wichita became the first Kansas city to decriminalize cannabis, with the support of its council and mayor. Other cities have taken smaller steps; in 2019, Lawrence reduced penalties for marijuana possession to as little as $1.


What About Other “Desert” States?

This question matters because for decades, the notion of disruption to neighboring states has been used to argue against legalizing cannabis. It’s more than just rhetoric: After Colorado legalized in 2012, the state was sued by neighboring Oklahoma and Nebraska. The states argued that Colorado’s legal sales would destabilize their own states and flood the zone with weed—it went up to the US Supreme Court, which refused to hear the case.

Despite such arguments, reality suggests that life goes on as normal in states whose neighbors have legalized. Other available evidence indicates that these states are not cracking down harder on cannabis as a result.

“Analysis of the data reveals that neighboring states legalizing cannabis does not result in increased enforcement.”

Take Wisconsin, where partisan politics have so far blocked legalization, in contrast to most neighboring states. In 2023, the Badger Institute and Court Data Technologies showed that statewide, relatively few people are being sent to prison for marijuana-only charges. In 2022, 2,289 people were charged for only marijuana and no other charges; of these, 16 people were sentenced to a year or more in prison, and 294 received shorter sentences. The report also looked at border counties in the state, neighboring cannabis-legal Illinois and Michigan.

“An analysis of the data reveals that neighboring states legalizing cannabis does not result in increased enforcement or accelerate the practical decriminalization of cannabis offenses,” it found. Across the board, charges and sentences decreased everywhere in the state after neighbors legalized, though at differing rates in different places. Marijuana criminal charges decreased 28 percent in border counties compared to 44 percent in non-border counties—while prison sentences decreased by 100 percent in border counties, compared to just 12 percent in non-border counties.

Idaho also borders mostly cannabis-legal states, and is another interesting case. Despite fluctuations, marijuana possession and sales arrests there fell overall between 2018-2021. But that hasn’t stopped some Idaho lawmakers from wanting to fear-monger about cannabis. A Republican representative recently proposed adding a mandatory minimum fine of $420 and misdemeanor conviction for marijuana possession, with no option to give a citation. He thinks police are currently too soft on weed, and proposed “building a wall around the state of Idaho.”

In Indiana, marijuana possession arrests have decreased overall between 2018-2022 as its neighbors have legalized, though have actually risen since 2020.

There also don’t seem to be nationwide trends of cannabis “desert” states increasing arrests after neighbors legalize. According to FBI data on 2021, Idaho had the highest marijuana arrest rates per capita, followed closely by North Dakota. But unlike those two, Louisiana has no fully cannabis-legal neighbors, and also had high arrest rates. Arrest rates in New Hampshire, surrounded by cannabis-legal states, were very low. It seems likely that respective states’ law enforcement tactics on marijuana haven’t been broadly impacted by neighbors’ policies.


“Desert” States Might Not Stay That Way

The national spread of legalization is forcing lawmakers in even the most conservative-leaning states to seriously consider access to cannabis. Poll after poll, nationwide and in different states, has shown majorities of Democrat, independent and often Republican voters supporting full cannabis legalization, but it’s typically Republican lawmakers blocking it.

That could change in Wisconsin, with fairer district maps expected to reduce the GOP’s hold on the statehouse after November elections.

Meanwhile, in Wisconsin’s only cannabis-desert neighbor, Iowa, politicians and activists are pushing the conversation for legalization now that their state is almost surrounded by legalized states. The nonprofit Campaign for Sensible Cannabis Laws has gathered voter signatures to petition lawmakers to legalize, and is working with other city and county officials to educate them about cannabis. But despite majority support among Iowa residents, legalization has little chance as long as Governor Kim Reynolds (R) remains in office. “I do not support recreational marijuana,” she said in 2019. “I don’t. I won’t be the governor to do that.”

In other states like West Virginia, lawmakers are increasingly opposing marijuana prohibition when neighbors are going green. State Senator Mike Caputo (D) is proposing adult-use legalization, with half of tax revenues reserved to fund the state’s Public Employees Insurance Agency, which provides health care for state employees but is facing budget issues. But Sen. Eric Tarr (R)—also known for trying to ban syringe service programs in the state—has falsely claimed that marijuana use will increase addiction and overdose rates and target children.

Back in Kansas, despite most residents supporting legalization in surveys, their lawmakers continue blocking it. In 2021, the House passed a bill approving medical legalization and sent it to the Senate. At that point, Republicans controlled both chambers, while Governor Laura Kelly (D) promised to approve it if the bill reached her desk. But Senate Republicans killed the bill, choosing not to act on it.

“Let them explain why they ignore the votes and the popular opinion and the instructions of their constituents.”

Missouri, to the east, legalized after that. Colorado, to the west, legalized over a decade ago. And even deep-red Oklahoma, to the south, legalized medical cannabis in 2018. Most recently, a Kansas Democratic Representative tried to add an amendment to separate legislation that would have removed cannabis from the state’s controlled substances act, but the amendment failed in a 41-80 vote.

Another Kansas House Democrat made clear he thinks the blame for the lack of progress lies with the Senate. “The time has come once again for the Kansas House of Representatives to send a bill to the Senate and let them explain to their constituents why they won’t act on it,” said Rep. John Carmichael.

“Let them explain to their constituents why they ignore the votes and the popular opinion and the instructions of their constituents—be they vets that are suffering from injury, be they old people who find relief, be they people who are who are taking chemotherapy or be they people who, quite frankly, like to drink and occasionally like to smoke a little weed as well,” he continued. “It’s time for us to once again do what our constituents want us to do, and let the Senate suffer the consequences for its inaction.”



Photograph (cropped) of Kansas Highway Patrol vehicle by Tyler Silvest used via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0

Alexander Lekhtman

Alexander is Filter's staff writer. He writes about the movement to end the War on Drugs. He grew up in New Jersey and swears it's actually alright. He's also a musician hoping to change the world through the power of ledger lines and legislation. Alexander was previously Filter's editorial fellow.

Disqus Comments Loading...