America's war on drugs continued full steam ahead last year, with the FBI reporting in its annual Uniform Crime Report Monday that an estimated 771,608 persons were arrested on marijuana charges in 2004, nearly nine out of ten of them charged with simple possession. The figure is an all-time high, breaking last year's record of 755,000, and gives the lie to oft-repeated law enforcement claims that marijuana enforcement is not a high priority. While marijuana use levels have been near stagnant in the past decade, the number of pot arrests has more than doubled since 1993.
Marijuana arrests accounted for 44.2% of all drug arrests, but it's not just pot arrests that were sky-high. The total number of drug arrests topped 1.74 million last year, and again, the vast majority -- 81% -- were for simple drug possession. Although drug use levels have remained relatively flat over the past decade, the number of drug arrests has increased by more than 9% since 2000 and nearly 23% since 1994.
Drug arrests were the single highest arrest category, edging out drunk driving (1.43 million arrests), simple assault (1.28 million), and petty larceny (1.19 million). There were more drug arrests than arrests for all property crimes combined (1.65 million) and more than three times more drug arrests than arrests for all violent crimes combined (590,000). (Simple assaults are not included in the serious violent crime category, which tallies aggravated assault, murder and intentional manslaughter, rape, and robbery.)
But it was the high number of marijuana arrests that brought out the critics. "These numbers belie the myth that police do not target and arrest minor marijuana offenders," said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "This effort is a tremendous waste of criminal justice resources that diverts law enforcement personnel away from focusing on serious and violent crime, including the war on terrorism."
"If we look at the government surveys, marijuana use has been stable or trending a bit downward in recent years, and yet we keep setting new records for the number of arrests," said Marijuana Policy Project communications director Bruce Mirken. "This strongly suggests that the arrest rates are driven by law enforcement priorities, what cases the cops choose to investigate, which arrests they decide to make. It is local police priorities that are causing this to happen. Reasonable people have to ask if this makes any sense," he told DRCNet. "Maybe there is a better use for these law enforcement resources, such as going after actual criminal or terrorists or other dangerous folks."
There are regional variations, noted Mirken. "While marijuana arrests as a percentage of all drug arrests increased from 39.9% in 1995 to 44.2% last year, the percentage of pot arrests was lowest in the West. Where things really went through the roof is in the Northeast, where marijuana arrests went from 36.3% of all drug arrests to 48.5%. Why that is happening in the Northeast I don't know, but somebody up there is putting more emphasis on marijuana smokers."
A marijuana arrest has human costs, ranging from a criminal record to loss of student financial aid and potential career difficulties. Sometimes the consequences of a simple pot bust are even more serious.
"It's important to remember that each of these statistics represents a human being, and in many cases, a preventable tragedy," said Aaron Houston, MPP director of government relations. "One of those marijuana arrests in 2004 was Jonathan Magbie, a quadriplegic medical marijuana patient who died in the Washington, DC, city jail while serving a 10-day sentence for marijuana possession. Had Congress not blocked the district's medical marijuana law from taking effect, Jonathan Magbie would almost certainly be alive today."
"Arresting adults who smoke marijuana responsibly needlessly destroys the lives of tens of thousands of otherwise law abiding citizens each year," NORML's St. Pierre said. "With nearly 17 million citizens arrested on marijuana-related charges since 1965, is now not the time for the state and federal governments to finally consider legally controlling marijuana via taxation? Is not such a public policy preferable to the current one where government arrests an extraordinary amount of citizens for an adult behavior that is not deviant, or, for that matter, dissimilar than consuming products that contain alcohol?"
Of the 17 million marijuana arrests mentioned by St. Pierre, nearly half have occurred in the last 10 years. Almost eight million people have been busted for pot since 1995.