The Risk of Arrest for Cannabis Consumers Is Shrinking

Nationwide, marijuana arrests peaked at nearly 873,000 in 2007; the 2019 number was 37 percent lower.


After rising for three years in a row, marijuana arrests in the United States fell by 18 percent in 2019. Police made about 545,600 such arrests in 2019, according to the FBI, compared to about 663,400 in 2018.

As usual, the vast majority of those arrests—92 percent—were for possession rather than manufacture or sale. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws reported that "much of the national decline resulted from a drop-off in marijuana arrests in Texas," where the total fell by more than 50,000.

Nationwide, marijuana arrests peaked at nearly 873,000 in 2007; the 2019 number was 37 percent lower. While the odds that any given cannabis consumer will be arrested have always been low, they are getting lower. Possession arrests in 2007 represented about 3 percent of marijuana users that year, judging from survey data. That risk in 2019, when there were more cannabis consumers and fewer arrests, was down to about 1 percent.

Marijuana arrests have dropped by 27 percent since Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize the drug for recreational use in 2012, but the decline has not been smooth. After dropping in 2013, pot busts rose in 2014, fell in 2015, then rose slightly for three consecutive years before dropping substantially in 2019.

Since possession had been legalized in eight states—including California, the most populous—by 2017, it may seem surprising that marijuana arrests initially continued to rise. But because several jurisdictions that legalized pot had previously decriminalized possession, their arrest rates were already relatively low. While California accounts for 12 percent of the U.S. population, for example, it accounted for less than 2 percent of marijuana arrests in 2016.

The risk of arrest is not evenly distributed across the population. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) found that black people are 3.6 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession as white people, even though rates of cannabis consumption in the two groups are similar.

Racial disparities persist even after decriminalization and legalization. In 2016, Illinois eliminated criminal penalties for possessing less than 10 grams (about a third of an ounce). The following year, the Chicago Sun-Times reported, four-fifths of the people busted for marijuana possession in that city were African Americans, who account for about a third of Chicago's population.

In states that legalize marijuana, the ACLU found, the black-white gap shrinks but does not disappear. In Colorado, for example, use in public remains illegal, and black people are almost twice as likely to be arrested for such offenses as whites.