Despite Marijuana Legalization Successes, Police Keep Arresting Users

New FBI statistics for 2017 even show a small increase.


Drug arrest
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We still arrest absurd numbers of Americans just for possessing marijuana, even as legalization trends march on. For proof, look at the FBI's data on national crime trends for 2017, which the bureau released today.

Most of the media attention will be on whether violent crime is up or down (it's down). But there's another important story in those numbers: The number one reason that people get arrested is drugs. In 2,017 there were 1.6 million arrests for "drug abuse violations." That's more than were arrested for violent crimes (518,000) or property crimes (1.25 million).

Drill down even further into the FBI stats and we see how absurdly lopsided drug-war enforcement is in the United States. Of those drug arrests, only 15 percent included charges of manufacturing and sales. Fully 85 percent of drug arrests were about simply having and/or using them.

And even as the march to decriminalize and legalize marijuana marches forward, in 2017 it was still the number one drug for getting arrested. Nationwide, 36.7 percent of drug arrests were for marijuana possession. That works out to 587,000 people arrested in a single year, just for pot.

Tom Angell notes in Forbes that the number of actual arrests have increased over 2016. This increase is due to more people being arrested for possession, not manufacturing or sales—for those crimes, there was an 8 percent drop.

This could mean, as marijuana law expert Douglas Berman notes, that the ability to legally grow marijuana in several states is changing enforcement. According to the FBI stats, marijuana arrests in western states (the main area of legalization) are about half the rate of other parts of the country. Unfortunately these same states more than make for it in arrests for possession of heroin, cocaine, and other types of drugs, so even in those states the vast majority of drug arrests are for possession, not manufacturing.

A new documentary series that just hit Netflix can help us see some of the more absurd contours of the drug war. First and Last is a six-part series that follows people's first or last days in the custody of Gwinnett County Jail in Georgia. The people arrested and put in jail for weeks and even months are frequently there for drug possession and use without any sort of additional criminal activity. One young man in the show spends 30 days in lock-up for violating probation on a marijuana-possession crime with a second arrest for marijuana possession. That's it.

It will be interesting to see what happens down the line to our crime stats when marijuana finally gets taken out of the equation. Yes, that's a "when," not an "if." There will probably still be some marijuana-related arrests; some states and cities can't keep from meddling in how citizens consume their weed. But if none of those marijuana arrests from 2017 had happened at all, that would have cut drug arrests by a third.