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Feature: Serious Crime Down, Drug Arrests Hold Steady, But Marijuana Arrests Increase to 872,000

Nearly 1.9 million people were arrested on drug charges in the United States last year, some 872,000 for marijuana offenses, according to the FBI's annual Uniform Crime Report, released Monday. While overall drug arrest figures declined marginally (down 84,000), marijuana arrests increased by more than 5% and are once again at an all-time high. Drug arrests exceed those for any other type of offense, including property crime (1.61 million arrests), driving under the influence (1.43 million), misdemeanor assaults (1.31 million), larceny (1.17 million), and violent crime (597,000).
People arrested for drug offenses face not only the distinct possibility of serving time in jail or prison -- drug offenders account for roughly 20% of all prisoners, and well more than half of all federal prisoners -- but also face collateral consequences that can haunt them for the rest of their lives. In addition to carrying the burden of a criminal record, drug offenders can lose access to various state and federal benefits, including students loans, food stamps, and public assistance, as well as being barred from obtaining professional licenses, and in some states, other consequences such as having their drivers' licenses suspended.

The high level of drug arrests comes as overall drug use rates remain roughly at the level they were 30 years ago. In the meantime, state, local, and federal authorities have spent hundreds of billions of dollars and arrested tens of millions of people in the name of drug prohibition.

The increase in drug arrests comes as the overall crime rate decreased. Violent crime was down 0.7% over 2006 and property crime was down 1.4%, marking the fifth consecutive year of declining numbers. All seven categories in the FBI's list of serious criminal offenses -- murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, and car theft -- saw declines last year. But not drug arrests.

The rate of drug arrests was highest in the West (677.5 per 100,000), followed by the South (664.5), the Midwest (549.6), and the Northeast (508.0). Nationally, the drug arrest rate was 614.8 per 100,000.

Of those arrested on pot charges, 775,000, or 89%, were charged only with possession, a figure similar to that for drug arrests overall. Another 97,000 pot offenders were charged with "sale/manufacture," a category that includes all cultivation or sales offenses, even those involving small-scale violations. Marijuana arrests last year accounted for 47.5% of all drug arrests. Almost three-quarters of marijuana arrests involved people under the age of 30.

The continuing high levels of drug arrests and the increase in marijuana arrests prompted sharp responses from drug reformers. "For more than 30 years, the US has treated drug use and misuse as a criminal justice matter instead of a public health issue," said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "Yet, despite hundreds of billions of dollars spent and millions of Americans incarcerated, illegal drugs remain cheap, potent and widely available in every community; and the harms associated with them -- addiction, overdose, and the spread of HIV/AIDS and hepatitis -- continue to mount. Meanwhile, the war on drugs has created new problems of its own, including rampant racial disparities in the criminal justice system, broken families, increased poverty, unchecked federal power, and eroded civil liberties. Continuing the failed war on drugs year after year is throwing good money and lives after bad."

Marijuana reform organizations naturally zeroed in on the pot arrest figures. "Most Americans have no idea of the massive effort going into a war on marijuana users that has completely failed to curb marijuana use," said Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, DC. "Just this summer a new World Health Organization study of 17 countries found that we have the highest rate of marijuana use, despite some of the strictest marijuana laws and hyper-aggressive enforcement. With government at all levels awash in debt, this is an insane waste of resources. How long will we keep throwing tax dollars at failed policies?"

"These numbers belie the myth that police do not target and arrest minor cannabis offenders," said NORML executive director Allen St. Pierre, who noted that at current rates, a cannabis consumer is arrested every 37 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."

"It's time for a new bottom line for US drug policy -- one that focuses on reducing the cumulative death, disease, crime and suffering associated with both drug misuse and drug prohibition," said Piper. "A good start would be enacting short- and long-term national goals for reducing the problems associated with both drugs and the war on drugs. Such goals should include reducing social problems like drug addiction, overdose deaths, the spread of HIV/AIDS from injection drug use, racial disparities in the criminal justice system, and the enormous number of nonviolent offenders behind bars. Federal drug agencies should be judged -- and funded -- according to their ability to meet these goals."

Piper agreed with the marijuana reform advocates that the marijuana laws are a good place to start. "Policymakers should especially stop wasting money arresting and incarcerating people for nothing more than possession of marijuana for personal use," he said. "There's no need to be afraid of what voters might think; the American people are already there. Substantial majorities favor legalizing marijuana for medical use (70% to 80%) and fining recreational marijuana users instead of arresting and jailing them (61% to 72%). Twelve states have legalized marijuana for medical use and 12 states have decriminalized recreational marijuana use (six states have done both)."

As Piper noted, marijuana law reform is happening, but it's not happening at fast enough a pace to slow the number of pot arrests. Alaska remains the only state to allow for the legal possession of marijuana (in one's home). A federal decriminalization bill was introduced this year for the first time since the Jimmy Carter presidency, but no one thinks it will get anywhere anytime soon. And even decriminalization means that marijuana users are still punished for their choice of substance, as well as having their property stolen by law enforcement.

The situation is even more bleak when it comes to non-pot drug offenders. There is virtually no impetus to rein back the war on them, and even the reform efforts that could reduce their numbers in prison, such as the Nonviolent Drug Offender Rehabilitation Act on the California ballot this fall, would not do anything to reduce the number of arrests. It would merely funnel those arrested into coerced treatment instead of prison.

Barring serious radical reform efforts to end the war on drugs -- and not merely ameliorate its most outrageous manifestations -- there is little reason to expect we will have anything different to report when it comes to drug arrests next year or the year after that.

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
Looking for the easiest way to join the anti-drug war movement? You've found it!

The only way to end the war

is to end it. Just. Stop. It.

Decriminalization and medical marijuana are NOT first steps to ending the war. They are, if anything, smoke screens clouding the real issues and pitting "tokers" against "hard drug" users.

And "diverting drug offenders" into "substance abuse treatment" is nothing more or less than a warm fuzzy way to say "continue the war;" the pretense of "helping" addicts only makes the murder and mayhem that much more despicable.

realism and politics

fortunately or not, politics is the art of the possible and all about nasty compromises. I think all drugs should be completely legal in plant form (Coca, opium, hemp) but I don't think that has a serious chance of becoming law. As someone on probation for pot I would have welcomed being able to pay a fine and be done with it. My life is much worse without pot. How many other substances are there where someone who abstains for a long time is eager toget back to it when possible? Cigarettes? Rock coke? maybe heroin, but most who kick are happy to be free. Cannabis is about heonly one where people stop with minor physical problems (Insomnia for some) but would eagerly restart, although there are also many who do not like pot anymore, have developed a psycholgical addiction and are glad to be off of it also. As I suppose there are former video game or internet porn freaks whose lives are better without...

Not to mention the corporate

Not to mention the corporate welfare involved in the practice of requiring "substance abuse treatment." I got involved with the law over a small marijuana offense and was sent to the "California Human Development Corporation" for some mandatory fixing. At the demand of the government, I had to pay over $500 over the course of three months to this private company (at least they're a 501(c)(3)) for drug rehab and regular testing. And after all this, after all the money and resources involved in arresting (law enforcement funding), prosecuting (court system), and "fixing" me (I paid for most of this part myself.. but I bet CHDC receives some taxpayer funding as well), and all the time I was forced to waste at this silly program, I remain a marijuana user and am now protected from our ridiculous Drug War under California's Compassionate Use Act.

those are still good things, though

All drug offenders would go to rehab instead of jail? That's huge! That's a major change in the way society thinks about drugs. Decriminalizing marijuana is huge too.

They might be very small changes in proportion to ending the drug war, but i do think once a few small things are done, reforms will pick up steam. I think this for two reasons: one, too many people out there simply are not even aware of or considering that drug laws should be changed. once a few things are done, the issue will be brought to their awareness. and two, many people out there are just afraid of what would happen if drugs were legal. if a few things start to happen and hell doesn't break loose, then they'll probably be more inclined to legalization.

One thing to be very optimistic about is Oregon and Nevada in 2010. They will vote to legalize marijuana, and, in Nevada at least, it's probably gonna pass. Once marijuana is legal somewhere (and once people can see for themselves what a good idea it was to legalize it), THAT'S really gonna get people thinking about major changes.


"How long will we keep throwing tax dollars at failed policies?"

I don't care how much of my tax dollars they waste. Marijuana is evil, and I'm against evil.

Does trolling make you happy?

Your handle says it all. The only evil here is your waste of DrCNet resources with such an inane comment. Go away, your purpose has been fulfilled.

Wasted $$ and lives.

This is why are prisons are so overcrowded. With over 2 million people incarcerated today for low level drug crimes. The prison system is big business at the tax payer's expense and the length of sentences that criminals get without any parole or good time in the Federal System is completely out of control.

Something has got to change please support Federal Parole and the Good Time Bill when introduced in the coming months.

Mrs. Lorie Brydon

Change but what kind

Change, it seems to be the mantra of not only the Democrats, but Senator McCain has picked up the chant too, pointing out his maverick reputation. The central question remains, what will real change amount to?
Healthcare for all our citizens, winning the war on terror, better break for the middle class, no more dependence on foreign energy?
Even if all these things happen will it amount to any kind of real change? Will you still be worried if you have to use a cash machine late at night? Will there still be gang violence if we all have health care? Will you still worry that your kids are in a dangerous place trying to score some weed? Will people still be afraid to sit on their front porch without getting hit by a stray bullet?
Try this, bring up the subject of marijuana in a crowd like a restaurant or store and use the word drugs or marijuana in a somewhat loud voice. Watch the people near you
automatically lower their voices or move away from you out of what? Bad hygiene? Bad breath? No, they lower their voices out of fear, not fear of drug dealers or users. They move away and lower their voices out of fear of the LAW! Someone might say I heard so and so talking about drugs ect: ect:
I don’t know about you but as a lifelong defender of this great nation this is certainly not the America I fought for.
The huge black market in drugs is the financial machine which pays for the gangs and guns and violence that plagues us all from large city to little burg. If these politicians really want change they will get serious about ending this long nightmare.
There will be no real change in America until the ’police state like cloud’ of the War on Drugs , which hangs over the country like smog over LA, is dissipated by the fresh wind and bright light of personal freedom.

Local statistics

Our local paper (town of 28,000) lists police arrests here. This week, about 20% were for marijuana possession, and one pipe.
(Nine arrests.)
It's nothing but a money machine. Our economy is in serious trouble, and the only department here that is not being considered for economic cuts is the cop budget. They are even asking for more money to build a sniper training range.
I say again: the war on drugs is not about drugs, it is about money and power.

Right Reverend Gregory Karl Davis's picture

heavenly fire

This announcement is posted in Jesus the Anointed (with marijuana) who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Marijuana is holy, and I am for good.

McCain and NRA = more war and prisons.

It is just more of the same.

The National Rifle Association pushed mandatory minimums through Congress. Look it up. Now, cannabis arrests for growing can get state or federal mandatory minimum sentences.

Welcome to BrownShirt fascism, NRA style.

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