Despite marijuana legalization being in effect in two states last year and decriminalization laws in nearly 20 more, the number of marijuana arrests actually increased last year, according to data from the FBI's annual Uniform Crime Report.
There were 700,993 marijuana arrests in 2014, compared with 693,000 in 2013. More than 88% of those arrests were for simple possession -- also an increase over 2013, by 2%.
Last year, people were being arrested for marijuana offenses at a rate of one every 45 seconds. That compares with one every half hour in 1965 and one every two minutes in 1990, when marijuana arrests really started skyrocketing. In that year, there were some 330,000 pot arrests; they peaked in 2007, with nearly 900,000. Last year's number represent a 20% decline from the 2007, but is still an increase over 2013.
The spread of legalization and decriminalization in the West is reflected in the numbers. Marijuana arrests were more likely to occur in the Midwest and South, while many fewer arrests were reported in the West.
Marijuana reform advocates were quick to denounce the uptick.
"These numbers refute the myth that nobody actually gets arrested for using marijuana. Could you imagine if hundreds of thousands of adults were arrested last year simply for possessing alcohol? That would be crazy. It's even crazier that hundreds of thousands of adults were arrested for possessing a less harmful substance," said Mason Tvert, director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project.
"It's unacceptable that police still put this many people in handcuffs for something that a growing majority of Americans think should be legal," said Tom Angell, chairman of Marijuana Majority. "A record number of states are expected to vote on legalizing marijuana next year, so we hope and expect to see these numbers significantly dropping soon. There's just no good reason that so much police time and taxpayer money is spent punishing people for marijuana when so many murders, rapes and robberies go unsolved."
The numbers should decrease next year. By the end of 2016, legalization will have been fully in effect in Alaska, DC, and Oregon, as well as in Colorado and Washington, where it was in effect all of last year. But for the numbers to have gone up last year even as legalization and decriminalization expanded across the country strongly suggests that enforcing the marijuana laws continues to be a favorite pastime for law enforcement.