Drug Policy

Drug Arrests Headed Down?

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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.