Every 49 Seconds an American is Arrested for Marijuana Possession


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.

graph weed arrest date fbi

Marijuana.com’s Tom Angell spoke with Huffington Post regarding the new FBI data.

“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.

If petty marijuana arrests are derailing lives and creating an enormous financial burden for taxpayers, it begs the question: who actually benefits from locking up Americans for weed offenses?

About Author

Used to write about music for XXL, Elevator, Complex, Genius, and a few other outlets. Follow @LongLiveTheDuke on Twitter if you'd like to read way fewer words by me.


  1. Conservative Christian on

    Who benefits? Private prisons. Police departments that get to sell the cars and homes of the people they arrest. Policians who accept “campaign contributions” from alcohol companies and pharmaceutical manufacturers.

    Who loses? Taxpayers. Kids who get busted with a joint. Parents whose homes are confiscated for growing a few plants. Schools that have their budgets cut in order to buy more “drug interdiction” toys and to build more jails. EVERYBODY who would get a tax break if we treated marijuana like alcohol.

    And that’s what the war on marijuana is all about, Charlie Brown.

  2. Conservative Christian on

    And like a real dufus, responding to my own comment ( or maybe just putting a finer point on it):

    Jesus said to treat other people the way we would have them treat us. Kids in jail for pot? Older people’s homes confiscated, sold, and the police keep the money? We will all stand before God one day. What a burden to have on our conscience.

  3. Im not Tom, but yes, Gov. Hickenlooper of Colorado was totally against legalization in his state 4 years ago, BUT has since changed his mind and even stated 3 or 4 weeks ago that he thinks legal marijuana in Colorado will work.

  4. I am one of those Americans. I was arrested for marijuana once in 2012, altogether a fairly calm procedure. Then, this year, I had my house raided by police thugs that claimed they smelled marijuana – SWAT style, gun in my face and everything. Spent five days in jail. I now suffer serious anxiety from the ordeal and it is a daily struggle. Because of the manner in which I was treated, with my 4th Amendment rights violated, I also now have a deep mistrust and hatred towards police. I am currently actively planning to move to Oregon, where it’s legal and I won’t have to worry about my house being torn apart and my possessions stolen over a simple plant. Land of the fucking free, eh? I hate this country’s backwards, counterintuitive, invasive laws.

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