The FBI reported Saturday that the number of arrests for violations of the marijuana laws hit an all-time high of 755,186 in 2003. Despite a decade of marijuana law reforms and protestations by police chiefs across the land that marijuana is not a priority, that figure is nearly double the number of people arrested for pot in 1993. The number of people arrested on marijuana charges last year also exceeds the number arrested for violent crimes by more than 150,000.
With only a couple of hiccups, the number of people arrested on marijuana charges has trended steadily upward in the past decade, no matter which party controls the levers of government. The previous peak of 735,500 was recorded in 2000, with 724,000 arrested in 2001 and 697,000 in 2002.
To illustrate the scope of the problem, the number of those arrested for marijuana is more than the entire population of the state of South Dakota (pop. 754,844). Or, for those for whom it is too easy to picture South Dakota as a empty wasteland, the number of pot arrests is greater than the populations of San Francisco (pop. 751,682), Jacksonville (pop. 735,617), or Columbus (pop. 711,470).
As has been the case in past years, the vast majority of marijuana arrests -- some 88% -- were for simple possession. Arrests for marijuana offenses constituted a whopping 45% of all drug arrests.
The numbers appeared in the FBI's annual Uniform Crime Report and were grist for the mill for pro-reform organizations. "With marijuana arrests exceeding 750,000 a year, it's safe to say that the drug war isn't preventing people from using marijuana," said Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project (http://www.mpp.org) in Washington, DC. "It's time to acknowledge this reality by taxing and regulating marijuana. A responsible system of regulation will do a better job of keeping marijuana away from kids and end the pointless persecution of adults who use marijuana responsibly."
"These numbers belie the myth that police do not target and arrest minor marijuana offenders," said Keith Stroup, Executive Director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (http://www.norml.org), who noted that at current rates, a marijuana smoker is arrested every 42 seconds in America. "This effort is a tremendous waste of criminal justice resources, costing American taxpayers approximately $7.6 billion dollars annually. These dollars would be better served combating serious and violent crime, including the war on terrorism."
While simple marijuana possession offenses typically draw light punishment, such as fines or suspended sentences, except in the most conservative or rural jurisdictions, the consequences of a marijuana arrest or conviction go far beyond having to pay a fine or submit to probationary drug testing. "Some people are lucky and just get a slap on the wrist," said Bruce Mirken, MPP director of communications. "But we also have horrifying cases like that of Jonathan Magbie, who died in the Washington, DC, jail earlier this month while serving a 10-day marijuana sentence. Or the young man in Florida who was raped in jail while serving a weekend sentence for a minor marijuana violation. One case like either of those is one case too many," he told DRCNet. "There is simply no rational reason why we should subject people to that sort of risk for private adult responsible use of a substance that is well-documented to be less harmful than alcohol."
While horror stories like that of Jonathan Magbie are thankfully the exception rather than the rule, everyone convicted of a marijuana crime is subject to a raft of continuing punishments beyond those exacted by the criminal justice system. "It can literally haunt them for the rest of their lives," said Mirken. "They lose access to federal benefits, they lose job opportunities because of the arrest record, they can't get student loans." According to the US Department of Education, over 150,000 college students or would-be students have lost access to federal financial aid because of drug crimes, the vast majority of them for simple marijuana possession.
"The bottom line," said Mirken, "is that none of this makes any sense. Even if people think we should be trying to curb marijuana use, arresting all these people hasn't done that, either."
While some 662,886 people were charged with simple marijuana possession, an additional 92,301 were charged with the more serious offense of "sale/manufacture." That number includes all those arrested for selling or growing marijuana, even those who were growing for their own use or for medical reasons.
While marijuana arrests are a large part of the drug war, they are by no means all of it. According to the FBI, nearly a million (923,006) people were arrested on other drug charges, with the vast majority of those being for simple possession. The Uniform Crime Report notes that the overall trend in all drug arrests is up 22% since 1994.
The number of drug arrests in 2003 (1,678,192) was greater than for any other major crime category. All property crimes combined totaled 1,605,127 arrests, while all violent crimes combined totaled 597,026. The number of drug arrests was also greater than the number of driving while intoxicated arrests (1,448,148) or the seemingly popular offense of simple assault (1,246,698). Drug arrests made up 12.3% of all arrests nationwide.
To read the FBI's 2003 Uniform Crime Report, visit http://www.fbi.gov/ucr/03cius.htm online.