Drug Arrests Headed Down?

According to FBI figures released today, drug arrests in the U.S. fell from a peak of more than 1.8 million in 2007 to 1.7 million last year. It was the first significant drop since 1991. Marijuana arrests, which had been rising steadily since 1991, also fell last year, to about 858,000 from a 2007 peak of about 873,000. As usual, marijuana accounted for about half of all drug arrests, and nine out of 10 pot arrests were for simple possession, as opposed to cultivation or sale.

Last year's drug arrest totals are still the second highest in history, so it may be premature to perceive a turning point in these numbers. Those looking for a partisan pattern should note that drug arrests climbed under Bill Clinton as well as George W. Bush, and that last year's drop occurred during the latter's second term. Since local police make the vast majority of drug arrests (especially pot busts), it's not clear how much difference the president's drug policy agenda makes, although federal priorities affect the behavior of state and local law enforcement agencies, especially when funding is attached to them.

As I noted in the January 2008 issue of Reason, there is no obvious relationship between marijuana arrests and marijuana use: Increases in arrests do not seem to be driven by increases in consumption, and busting more pot smokers does not seem to result in less pot smoking. While the odds of getting arrested have roughly doubled since the early 1990s, the overall of level of use is no lower now than it was then and may be somewhat higher (changes in survey methodology make it difficult to be sure). In the last several years, self-reported marijuana use has been essentially flat, while arrests continued to climb before dropping slightly last year, when survey data indicate that use rose slightly.

Last year, the Marijuana Policy Project calculates, "an American was arrested on marijuana charges every 37 seconds." It makes you wonder why he didn't wait until the cops were gone before lighting up again. NORML and LEAP have more here and here.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • jasno||

    Did Phish go on tour last year? Maybe that explains the drop?

  • ||

    Jacob, your wit is usually amusing. But that joke falls too much into the "stoners are dumb and irresponsible" stereotype category. Maybe it will be funny later tonight after all my responsibilities have been met and I can light up.

  • ||

    Last year's drug arrest totals are still the second highest in history, so it may be premature to perceive a turning point in these numbers.

    Call me at the end of 2011.

  • ||

    Any correlation to unemployment?

  • ||

    I'm currently spending a few weekends in jail for a traffic offense, and it's really sad just how many of the other people in here are doing time for getting high. Drug laws and DUI laws put at least 3/4 of these guys in here, and even the DUI charges are petty things that seem to serve more to keep the jails full and the courts in full-swing than to make anyone safer.

    Here are some example of how these guys were arrested:

    1. Guy gets too drunk to go home. As he describes it, he was almost too drunk to even reach his car. So he gets in the car to sleep it off until the morning. Because he's in the car with keys, he gets charged with drunk driving, despite the fact that he was specifically avoiding doing so.

    2. Guys go camping/fishing for the weekend. Game warden shows up. He asks to look in their tackle box after seeing their fishing licenses. He finds the joints that they had planned to smoke after cooking their fish, so they're in jail. Thank god those guys are no longer a threat to the world.

    I deserve the few days of jail that I'm serving, because driving too fast actually made me a threat to people around me. But most of the guys in here for drugs or DUI really don't belong in here at all.

  • Braun||

    No surprise here. The ONLY reason arrests have gone down is b.c. is MANY stats, possession of marijuana is not an arrestable offense anymore (Mass, CO, CA, Ohio, etc) - simply a civil fine. Mystery solved.

  • Braun||

    in MANY states


Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.