Arrest Numbers Reflect Growing Pot Tolerance

Marijuana busts hit a two-decade low last year.


FBI statistics released last week show that the number of marijuana arrests in the United States, after rising slightly in 2014, fell by 8 percent last year, reaching the lowest level in two decades. The total was nevertheless more than twice the number in 1991, before a nationwide cannabis crackdown that peaked in 2007. The number of marijuana arrests has fallen more or less steadily since then, reflecting a growing consensus that cannabis consumers should not be treated as criminals.

The FBI's numbers indicate that police across the country made 643,121 marijuana arrests in 2015, 26 percent fewer than the 2007 total of 872,720. As usual, the vast majority of pot arrests—almost nine out of 10—were for possession, as opposed to sale or cultivation. A 2006 analysis by the Sentencing Project's Ryan King and Marc Mauer found that less than 6 percent of marijuana arrests lead to a felony conviction.

It's not clear exactly why police started targeting cannabis consumers with renewed zeal in the early 1990s. Changes in marijuana use do not account for the surge in arrests. To the contrary, the risk of arrest for the average cannabis consumer rose substantially between 1991 and 2007, when the number of marijuana arrests tripled. Marijuana accounted for 52 percent of all drug arrests by 2010, up from less than 29 percent in 1991. "Since 1990," King and Mauer noted, "the primary focus of the war on drugs has shifted to low-level marijuana offenses. During the study period [1990 through 2002], 82% of the increase in drug arrests nationally (450,000) was for marijuana offenses, and virtually all of that increase was in possession offenses."

Last year the lion's share of drug arrests—43 percent—still involved marijuana. But that percentage has been dropping since 2010.


In some jurisdictions, police no longer have the option of arresting adults for possessing small amounts of marijuana. Colorado's 2012 legalization initiative eliminated all penalties for possession of up to an ounce by adults 21 or older, which was previously a petty offense. The Drug Policy Alliance found that the number of marijuana possession cases in Colorado fell by 84 percent between 2010 and 2014, from 9,011 to 1,464.

The change in Washington state, where voters also approved legalization in 2012, was even more dramatic. According to the ACLU of Washington, marijuana possession cases fell from 6,879 in 2011 to 120 in 2013—a 98 percent drop.

Oregon, where voters approved legalization in 2014, decriminalized possession of an ounce or less back in 1973, making it a violation subject to a fine rather than an offense for which someone can be arrested. Data from the Oregon State Police nevertheless show a big drop in pot busts after legalization took effect, from 4,273 in 2014 to 1,129 in 2015.

Alaska, the other state where a legalization initiative passed in 2014, also decriminalized possession in the '70s. According to the Alaska Department of Public Safety, marijuana-related arrests fell from 716 in 2014 to 290 in 2015.

Washington, D.C., decriminalized possession in 2014 and legalized possession, home cultivation, and sharing in 2015 (as a result of an initiative approved the previous year). Possession arrestsplunged from more than 2,000 in 2011 to fewer than 10 last year.

A ballot initiative approved by Massachusetts voters in 2008 made possession of less than an ounce a citable offense punishable by a $100 fine. According to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, marijuana arrests fell precipitously, from 10,260 in 2008 to 2,748 in 2009. By contrast, after Maine's legislature made possession of up to two-and-a-half ounces a civil infraction in 2009, arrests fell only slightly.

California and New York City have been bigger contributors to the downward trend in marijuana arrests, accounting for more of it than all those other jurisdictions combined. After California legislators made possession of an ounce or less a civil infraction in 2010, misdemeanor marijuana arrests fell from 54,849 to 7,764. Low-level marijuana possession arrests by the NYPD, meanwhile, fell from more than 50,000 in 2011 to fewer than 17,000 last year. That change resulted not from new legislation but from the city's decision to start respecting a state decriminalization law passed four decades ago after flouting it for a decade and a half.

These are just the most conspicuous examples of jurisdictions that have recently started taking a less repressive approach to marijuana. The national trend, which gave us 229,599 fewer marijuana arrests last year than in 2007, clearly goes beyond these places. It includes every city that has decided minor marijuana offenses should not be a high law enforcement priority because police resources are better used to catch predatory criminals.

Still, 643,121 marijuana arrests are 643,121 too many. Even though marijuana offenders typically do not spend much time behind bars, they have done nothing to deserve the cost, inconvenience, humiliation, loss of freedom, and ancillary penalties associated with an arrest.

"While the numbers are thankfully dropping over time," says Marijuana Majority Chairman Tom Angell, "it's alarming and simply unacceptable that someone is harassed by the police just for marijuana every 49 seconds in this country. 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. Our movement is set to more than double the number of states with legalization this November, and we won't stop pushing until the day when no one is put into handcuffs or cages just because they choose to consume cannabis."

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