Earlier this week, we began a discussion about one very distinct difference between Wisconsin and Minnesota. Even though both states have similar population demographics, geography and size, each addresses a specific drug issue very differently. Though each state’s law enforcement treats every other kind of drug issue with striking similarity, Wisconsin arrests more than twice as many individuals per year for simple marijuana possession than Minnesota does.

As we previously noted, studies show that Minnesota residents use marijuana slightly more frequently than Wisconsin residents do. As a result, it is the behavior of law enforcement that accounts for the disparate arrest rates.

Though it is not immediately clear why Wisconsin law enforcement cracks down on simple marijuana possession more than Minnesota law enforcement does, the decision to do so costs Wisconsin dearly.

For example, arresting a single individual on this charge costs more than $430 in law enforcement costs on average. This means that if Wisconsin reduced its simple marijuana possession arrests to Minnesota levels, from roughly 16,000 to 7,500 individuals annually, the state would save a minimum of $3.5 million. These savings do not even take into consideration the money that it costs to jail arrestees, prosecute cases or incarcerate those who are convicted and sentenced to time.

In addition, the human costs of Wisconsin’s approach are significant. Those who are arrested spend an average of $1,675 in court costs, fines, etc. even if they are not convicted of possession.

Finally, there is a troubling racial dimension to Wisconsin’s arrest rate, regardless of whether this consequence is intentional or unintentional. African Americans are arrested on this charge at a rate six times higher than Caucasian individuals, despite a negligible difference in their marijuana usage rates.

Wisconsin doesn’t need to root for the Vikings or the Twins, but it should behave a little more like Minnesotans in this single respect. Perhaps it is time for Wisconsin law enforcement to rethink its approach to arresting people for simple possession of marijuana.

Source: American Civil Liberties Union, “What if Wisconsin Arrested Half as Many People for Marijuana Possession?” Alex Stamm, Sept. 26, 2012