According to newly released FBI crime data, there were fewer marijuana arrests in the United States last year than any year since 1996. This progress seems encouraging until you realize that an American was placed in handcuffs for weed every 49 seconds last year. That’s 643,000 people who saw the back of a police car last year because of simple marijuana possession.
Those 643,000 arrests accounted for nearly 45% of the drug arrests and 5.9% of total arrests in America last year. Marijuana lockups made up about 52% of all drug arrests in 2010, meaning police forces are shifting their focus from weed to heroin and other far more dangerous substances. As you can see in the graph below, pot-related arrests peaked in 2007 when almost 800,000 men and women were locked up.
“While the numbers are thankfully dropping over time, it’s alarming and simply unacceptable that someone is harassed by the police just for marijuana every 49 seconds in this country,” Angell stressed. “Polls now consistently show that a growing majority of Americans supports full legalization, and it’s about time more politicians and law enforcement caught up.”
Looking deeper into the data reveals some other interesting trends. Many states have decriminalized marijuana possession, so conventional thinking would suggest that the majority of marijuana arrests are for high-level charges like distribution or trafficking. That assumption would be wrong. Arrests for possession of any amount of marijuana accounted for 89% of marijuana arrests, the same percentage as in 2007.
According to the Drug Policy Alliance, marijuana arrests are “the engine driving the U.S. war on drugs” and “the huge number of marijuana arrests every year usurps scarce law enforcement, criminal justice and treatment resources at enormous cost to taxpayers.”
If people getting locked up for nonviolent marijuana offenses doesn’t move the needle for you, perhaps the financial aspect will. According to the ACLU’s 2013 report on marijuana arrests, “Enforcing marijuana laws costs us about $3.6 billion a year, yet the War on Marijuana has failed to diminish the use or availability of marijuana.”
The ACLU estimates the total national expenditure of enforcing marijuana possession laws at approximately $3.613 billion. In 2010, states spent an estimated $1,747,157,206 policing marijuana possession arrests, $1,371,200,815 adjudicating marijuana possession cases, and
$495,611,826 incarcerating individuals for marijuana possession.
The devil’s advocates would claim that very few people arrested on a possession charge face prison time, but that argument fails to acknowledge that getting handcuffed for weed causes significant harm to individuals and communities. Even if someone is released from custody the same day they were locked up, the damaging mark on their criminal record can create major roadblocks when applying for employment, trying to get into college, or renting a home.