U.S.: Share of Arrests For Marijuana Possession Tripled Since 1991


By Steve Elliott
Hemp News

With thousands of incarcerated nonviolent drug offenders symbolizing the futility of the "War On Drugs," even some of the most ardent supporters of the punitive approach are starting to view the issue of marijuana use through a public health perspective, rather than from a criminal justice point of view.

That shift is evident at the infamous White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, the dreaded ONDCP, which for decades has been the command center of the federal War On Drugs, reports Christopher Ingraham at The Washington Post. The ONDCP now uses words like "balance" as key components of federal drug control strategy.

"Drug addiction is not a moral failing but rather a disease of the brain that can be prevented and treated," the ONDCP website reads. "Drug policy is a public health issue, not just a criminal justice issue."

But unfortunately, law enforcement agencies haven't gotten the message. While the number of arrests for all offenses has declined nationwide since 1991, the share of those arrests related to simple cannabis possession has more than tripled over the same period.

The number of marijuana possession arrests has more than doubled since 1991, although it has slightly dropped in recent years. But the percent of all arrests related to cannabis has continued to rise, even as public attitudes about pot have softened and states have relaxed marijuana laws.

More than 658,000 people were arrested for cannabis possession in 2012, accounting for 42 percent of all drug arrests and 5.4 percent of all arrests for any offense, according to numbers from the FBI. Since a handful of states don't report data to the FBI, the actual numbers are likely even higher.

Focus on marijuana arrests can vary widely between states, even next door to each other. In New York, one out of every eight arrests -- 12.7 percent -- are for simple marijuana possession. Across the state line in Massachusetts, fewer than one out of every 100 arrests are for marijuana possession.

Marijuana is decriminalized in both states (New York, 1977 and Massachusetts, 2009), but a loophole in New York's decrim law allows cops to arrest people for marijuana that is "in public view." If officers can trick an unsuspecting person into emptying their pockets during a police encounter, the pot is now and "public view," and out come the handcuffs.

The figures show that Nebraska and Louisiana are statistically the riskiest states in which to smoke marijuana, with about 50 arrests per 1,000 users. In Massachusetts, marijuana users are 40 times less likely to be arrests, with a rate of 1.3 possession arrests per 1,000 users.

States spent a total of $3.6 billion arresting people for marijuana possession in 2010, according to ACLU estimates. And arrests can be huge burdens, financial and otherwise, with thousands of dollars in legal fees, sometimes forced rehab (also prohibitively expensive), and difficulty finding employing and even housing.