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The Current Drug Landscape

An estimated 24.6 million Americans aged 12 or over used an illicit drug in 2013. That’s 9.4% of the population.1 The number was similar in 2012 (9.2%), and in that year the FBI reports that there were 1.5 million drug law violations, 82% of which were for possession.2

These are broad, country-level numbers, of course. If you want more fine-grained statistics, you have to be patient and wait for the release of a report like the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, which is published once a year and provides fresh facts about drug and alcohol use across America at the state level. But even these figures leave a lot to be desired, considering what a culturally, politically and economically diverse country America is. The difference between two cities in the very same state can be like night and day. Miami and Jacksonville in Florida, for example, couldn’t be much less alike, despite being only a few hundred miles apart. The same holds true for Houston and Dallas, for example, or for Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

To understand the current drug landscape across America it might therefore be wiser to zoom in on a selection of cities and dissect each one individually. In this first issue of Arrests Across America, we will focus on eight major U.S. cities and the drug violations that have occurred within their borders over the last few years.

Click a city below to jump to the appropriate section







If you think the eight locations we’ve chosen seem like a motley assortment, lacking of arguably more significant cities like Los Angeles and New York, it’s because strictly speaking we didn’t choose them. They volunteered themselves by virtue of their participation in Open Data programs: publicly accessible databases that provide up-to-date figures on key issues like building permits, food inspections and crimes. As of November 2014, the U.S. City Open Data Census reports that 74 U.S. cities have data portals, with 641 datasets available between them, about a quarter of which are totally open.3

Check out the complete list here and you’ll see that New York and Los Angeles do have data available to the public, but (as indicated by the red lines) it’s severely lacking in many regards. It’s not complete (only certain types of crimes are included, like murder and rape, not drugs and DUIs), and it’s not available to download in bulk. In contrast, the eight cities we are about to examine do have detailed data on drug crimes, including key pieces of information such as where violations occurred and for what type of drug. So let’s get started with the biggest among them: Chicago. A city of 2.7 million souls.

Chicago, IL

In 2013, Chicago had 34,000 drug law violations. Two-thirds involved marijuana, crack, heroin, or cocaine. It’s not hard to guess which of those drugs in particular was involved in the most arrests. The maps below show the locations of the two-thirds of violations that involved the aforementioned drug types. Each dot, representing a single event, is accurate to the block level.

The drug law violations mapped above are only those that occurred Jan-Oct 2014, and they total 20,851. It’s obvious from the sheer number of dots on the first map that most of the drug law infractions in Chicago this year have been for the possession or sale of marijuana. Here are the same maps again, simplified and placed side by side.

60% of drug law violations between January and October of 2014 were for marijuana, at an average of 42.7 a day. That’s a bit lower than the 50.5 per day that were made in 2013, and lower still than 2012’s 54.8. The number may be falling due to law enforcement officials shifting their focus from lower-level drug crimes to bigger and more violent drug operations.4

The map above of drug arrests sits alongside a poverty level map of Chicago, made using data from 2011. The correlation between the areas with high poverty and high numbers of drug arrests is unmistakable. However, it’s also worth considering the relative population sizes of Chicago’s neighborhoods. So let’s do that.

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. The map above right 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. Therefore, the top five wards in Chicago for drug incidents in 2014 are 28, 24, 27, 37 and 16. Which are, in case you don’t work for the Department of Zoning: Garfield Park, North Lawndale, Near Westside, Austin, and Englewood.

76% of drug law violations in Chicago in 2013 were made on the street or in an alley, with residences and vehicles in distant second and third (10% and 5%).

Meth arrests have stayed pretty steady over the last few years (averaging not much more than one a week, which seems curiously infrequent). Crack arrests have been falling since 2012, with an average of 7.8 a day this year, 9 in 2013, and 10.4 in 2012.

Cocaine arrests are about the same this year as in 2013: 2.8 and 2.7 per day respectively. There were 3.5 a day in 2012.

The line chart below gives a clearer picture.

Most drug arrests in Chicago are pretty evenly distributed across the week. Cocaine is the only drug for which arrests are noticeably more frequent on specific days, with most occurring on Saturdays (18%) and Fridays (16.5%). Cocaine arrest levels have been steady over the last decade, whereas total yearly heroin arrests have outnumbered crack arrests since about mid-2009. Marijuana arrests, as already mentioned, are on the decline.

There’s a lot more we could say about Chicago, and in a future issue we probably will, but we have seven other places to visit and tens of thousands more drug arrests to map. So let’s swap the streets of the Windy City for the rolling, foggy hills of The City by the Bay.

San Francisco, CA

In 2013, there were 4,470 marijuana, cocaine, meth, and heroin arrests/citations in San Francisco — reflecting little change from 2012, which saw 4,326. You have to go back a few more years to see big changes in the numbers.

As the graph above clearly shows, drug arrests in San Francisco have been falling year on year since the end of 2008, except where meth arrests are concerned, which have very gradually been rising. Last year they were higher than any other year since 2005. The explanation for the drop in all other drug arrests seems similar to the one mentioned earlier for Chicago: a change in priorities by law enforcement. For instance, a 2010 change in California state law made the possession of small amounts of marijuana an infraction rather than a misdemeanor. Overall, the California Department of Justice reports that drug arrests in San Francisco and the Bay Area have dropped 75% over the least five years.

Here is how the remaining arrests have been distributed across San Francisco over the last two years, beginning with marijuana.

There have been 4,118 marijuana arrests/citations in San Francisco between January 2012 and October 2014. That total doesn’t include arrests/citations for “drug paraphernalia,” which usually—but not always—are associated with marijuana in some way. There are three main clusters on the map above. One is around downtown, which is to be expected. Another is Bayview-Hunters Point, which has been plagued by gang and drug activity for many years. In 2011, The New York Times described the area as one of the city’s most violent neighborhoods.5 Another cluster of marijuana incidents can be seen around the Haight. SF Weekly reported in 2013 that neighborhood complaints about drug dealing in the Haight-Ashbury area have soared in recent years.6

It’s not just marijuana that can be found there, either.

The main clusters of meth arrests can be seen in the downtown area, especially on and around Market Street. This is where much of San Francisco’s homeless population could be found over the last decade, as well as the welfare and medical services that care for them7. More recently, there have been reports that the homeless population has been pushed by new tech companies in the Mid-Market district into nearby neighborhoods.8

If we arrange the drug arrest maps side by side, we can get a clear idea of which drug types have resulted in the most arrests since 2012.

The San Francisco poverty map once more correlates closely with the distribution and density of drug arrests. Marijuana was involved in the most incidents, but not by anywhere near as great a margin as we saw earlier for Chicago. To see the ratio between marijuana and the other three drugs drop even further, all you need to do is travel 1,200 miles from San Francisco to somewhere where marijuana is completely legal: Denver, Colorado.

Denver, CO

If we begin our look at Denver by comparing the total number of arrests for each drug type over the last four years, the situation is somewhat confusing.

Arrests for cocaine and its derivatives have been decreasing since 2009. That’s good. Meth and heroin have increased though. Not so good. But marijuana is on the rise as well, despite being legal to use and possess since December 2012 and legal to sell to anyone aged 21 or over since January 2014. So why are marijuana arrests higher in 2013 than 2009? And already higher by October 2014 than the whole of 2013? Well, on closer inspection, they aren’t. Marijuana citations are. At the 4/20 Rally in 2013, for example, five citations were issued.9 At the same rally this year, that number rose to 130 (92 of which were for public consumption of marijuana).10 It is, after all, still prohibited in Denver to smoke marijuana in public places.

If we map marijuana, cocaine, meth, and heroin drug incidents between January 2013 and October 2014, we can see that—despite there still being a relatively large number of marijuana citations—they are proportionally much less significant than arrests for the other three main drug types.

Only 14% of violations across the above four drug types were for marijuana-related offenses. Cocaine/crack arrests were much more prevalent. They accounted for just over half of drug arrests across the four main drug types. In our next city, where marijuana is still illegal, the ratio of marijuana arrests to heroin and cocaine is very different than what you see above.

Baltimore, MD

Baltimore has seen a lot more marijuana violations recently than Denver, even taking into consideration that possessing less than 10 grams of marijuana in Maryland is now considered a civil charge rather than a criminal one. From January 2013 to October 2014, there have been 14 police incidents on average per day involving marijuana in Baltimore, compared to 3.3 for cocaine and 3 for heroin.

Despite the variation in dot number across each of the maps above, their neighborhood distribution is extremely similar. Three or four main clusters of drug arrests can be seen in the heroin and cocaine arrests, near Upton, Hollins Market, Arlington and Broadway East. Unless you’re quite familiar with Baltimore’s geography, those names won’t mean much to you, but the main clusters of drug arrests once again overlap the areas of most extreme poverty in the city.

As in all cities, it’s men in Baltimore who are arrested for drug offenses most often. 88% of the people arrested or cited for marijuana-related charges were male, as were 85% and 84% of heroin and cocaine offenders respectively. The next city on our list is pretty similar to Baltimore, at least in terms of its population size and median age of residents. It’s 300 miles away as the crow flies, but only 72 pixels as the finger scrolls.

Raleigh, NC

Raleigh, North Carolina had 5,842 marijuana, cocaine/opium, and synthetic drug arrests and citations in 2013. We’ve grouped cocaine with opium because that’s how Raleigh’s database lists it. The graph below shows how arrests for each of those drug categories have changed in volume over the last eight years.

In 2010, law enforcement made 20,983 marijuana arrests in North Carolina, which placed the state in 10th place for the most in the nation. Marijuana is still illegal in North Carolina and police interventions for the possession of the drug are numerous—growing, in fact, since 2011.

Cocaine, crack and opium arrests (grouped together) mostly fell from 2005 to 2012, but have risen a bit since then. Here’s how the various drug incidents look when mapped.

The long streak of marijuana incidents you can see in the top left of the city is along Route 70, which passes right through Raleigh. 30% of the marijuana arrests and citations on the map above are concentrated in that big dark green blob around downtown. On the cocaine/crack/opium arrests map below, the density is even higher at 44%. Synthetic drug arrests were more evenly distributed around the city.

You can see below that a large majority of drug violations in Raleigh were for marijuana, a higher proportion than any of the other cities we’ve looked at so far: Raleigh (74%), Baltimore (67%), Chicago (60%), San Francisco (31%), and Denver (14%). It’s worth remembering though that those numbers should only be loosely compared—each city categorizes its drug arrests differently, and we’ve short-listed and shown a few of the “main drugs” on that basis.

The last three cities on our sightseeing tour across the American drug arrest landscape are Boston, Seattle, and Kansas City. These three fall together at the end of our list because, unlike the places we’ve covered so far, their data doesn’t distinguish arrests by drug type. Instead, they are simply described with a vague term like “drug/narcotics.”

Boston, MA

From January to October of 2014, there were 3,480 police incidents involving drugs in Boston. By year’s end, that figure looks like it’ll be a bit higher than the total from 2013, which was 3,875. It’s unlikely to reach 4,768 though, which was 2012’s grand total. It’s a safe bet that the vast majority of drug incidents (but not necessarily arrests) in Boston are marijuana-related, as the drug still isn’t legal in Massachusetts. Instead, possession of small quantities of the substance are punishable with a fine (but not a criminal record). Before this change to the law was made in 2009, offenders faced up to six months in jail and a $500 fine.11 The downtown Boston areas are responsible for the most drug incidents, especially South Boston. The dark cluster just above the South Boston label on the map below contains more than 650 events.

Kansas City, MO

There were 5,771 drug offenses in Kansas City between January 2014 and October 2014. Based on 2,400 of those events, 77% of the offenders were male and 33% were female—a relatively high proportion of women compared to some other cities.

The average age of those arrested or cited for a drug offense was 31; this average was the same for both genders.

Most drug-related incidents occurred around the downtown area of Kansas City. The zip code with the most activity along these lines was 64130 (where E 51st Street intersects with Indiana Avenue). This area had 628 police incidents involving drugs in the first 10 months of 2014, more than 100 more than the second busiest zip code, which is on the corner of E 20th Street and Askew Avenue.

Seattle, WA

While Seattle’s data portal doesn’t allow for much insight into arrests by drug type, there are other sources of information available. A study by the University of Washington in 201312 made the following observations about Seattle and the county in which it resides:

Heroin morbidity and mortality have continued to increase alongside meth availability.

About one third of people who reported using meth also stated they had used heroin—a substantial increase since 2005.

Marijuana use is common following its legalization for people aged 21 or over. Arrests are down since 2009 (120 pieces of police evidence in 2013 versus a high of 868 in 2009).

Coming Soon

We began with the observation that American states differ so much from one another that their individual drug landscapes must surely look very different as well. Now that we have literally observed the drug landscapes of eight cities, that initial observation—as basic as it was—appears to be true. 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 legal13), so too will changes in drug arrest and citation rates for its possession. Arrests for the sale and possession of other, more serious drugs will surely fluctuate as well, albeit for different reasons.

We plan to examine more locations as they make their crime data available through portals similar to those used by the cities above. In the meantime, and in the next issue of Arrests Across America, we will take a close look at DUIs: where they happen, why they happen and if they’re on the increase. Stay tuned.

Sources