The FBI released its annual Uniform Crime Report Monday, and it showed that despite nearly two decades of drug reform efforts, the drug war continues unabated, at least when measured by arrests. According to the report, overall drug arrests hit a record 1.8 million last year, accounting for 13.1% of all arrests in the country. Marijuana arrests totaled 786,545, another all-time high.
People arrested for drug dealing, manufacture, or cultivation accounted for only 18% of all drug arrests, meaning nearly 1.5 million people were subjected to the tender mercies of the criminal justice system merely because they possessed the wrong substance. When it comes to marijuana arrests, only 12% were for sale or cultivation, meaning some 696,000 people were busted for pot possession.
Marijuana arrests made up 42.6% of all drug arrests, suggesting that if the weed were legal, the drug war would shrink by roughly half. Heroin and cocaine accounted for another 30.2% of drug arrests, while synthetic and "other dangerous non-narcotic drugs" accounted for 27.2%
Marijuana arrests have more than doubled since 1993, when they sat at 380,000. By the beginning of the Bush administration in 2001, the number was 723,000. The figure declined to 697,000 in 2002, but has increased each year since then.
"These numbers belie the myth that police do not target and arrest minor marijuana offenders," said National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) executive director Allen St. Pierre, who noted that at current rates, a marijuana smoker is arrested every 40 seconds in America. "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," he argued.
"One marijuana arrest every 40 seconds," sighed Tom Angell, communications director for Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP). "I think the numbers show that most people arrested for marijuana possession are young people, and presumably many of them are students. The more young people arrested for marijuana offenses, the more get convicted and lose their financial aid," he told Drug War Chronicle. "The consequences of a drug arrest don't end with handcuffs and jail cells; it's important to remember that when these numbers come out every year. Even if people aren't being sent to jail for long periods, they still suffer a great deal by losing access to public benefits and having criminal records that will haunt them for the rest of their lives."
"This is an interesting puzzle," said Bruce Mirken, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project. "We hear all the time that police aren't making marijuana a priority, and yet the numbers keep going up. One might begin to think that some of these law enforcement people making these claims may not be telling the truth," he told the Chronicle.
"Arresting hundreds of thousands of Americans who smoke marijuana responsibly needlessly destroys the lives of otherwise law abiding citizens," St. Pierre said, adding that over 8 million Americans have been arrested on marijuana charges in the past decade. During this same time, arrests for cocaine and heroin have declined sharply, implying that increased enforcement of marijuana laws is being achieved at the expense of enforcing laws against the possession and trafficking of more dangerous drugs.
"Enforcing marijuana prohibition costs taxpayers between $10 billion and $12 billion annually and has led to the arrest of nearly 18 million Americans," St. Pierre concluded. "Nevertheless, some 94 million Americans acknowledge having used marijuana during their lives. It makes no sense to continue to treat nearly half of all Americans as criminals for their use of a substance that poses no greater -- and arguably far fewer -- health risks than alcohol or tobacco. A better and more sensible solution would be to tax and regulate cannabis in a manner similar to alcohol and tobacco."
"These sorts of numbers show the challenges the drug reform movement continues to face," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "Compared to 20 or 30 years ago, we're doing a good job of keeping people out of jail. Most people arrested on drug charges, at least for possession, probably get probation, and that's important," he told the Chronicle. "That said, the challenge for us is to deconstruct the institutions that support this. While most arrests are at the state and local level, the funding that the federal government provides to law enforcement is all tied to arrests, so state and local police forces have a very strong incentive to keep arresting drug offenders."