Feature: Marijuana Arrests, All Drug Arrests Declined Slightly in 2008, FBI Reports

The number of people arrested for drug offenses in the United States declined slightly last year, according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Report. And for the first time since 2002, the number of people arrested on marijuana charges also declined. The number of arrests for all drug offenses declined from 1,841,182 in 2007 to 1,702,537 last year, while the number of people arrested on marijuana charges dropped from 872,721 in 2007 to 847,864 last year.

Drug abuse violations United States total Northeast Midwest South West
Total1 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0

Total 17.7 22.1 19.3 16.4 16.1
Heroin or cocaine and their derivatives 7.7 13.4 5.6 7.5 5.8
Marijuana 5.5 5.9 8.2 4.3 5.4
Synthetic or manufactured drugs 1.5 1.2 1.2 2.6 0.6
Other dangerous nonnarcotic drugs 3.0 1.5 4.4 1.9 4.3
Possession: Total 82.3 77.9 80.7 83.6 83.9
Heroin or cocaine and their derivatives 20.1 20.7 12.5 21.0 22.3
Marijuana 44.3 46.5 51.9 50.2 33.2
Synthetic or manufactured drugs 3.3 2.7 3.8 4.2 2.5
Other dangerous nonnarcotic drugs 14.6 8.0 12.5 8.2 25.9
table from http://www.fbi.gov/ucr/cius2008/arrests/

More people were arrested for drug offenses last year than live in the cities of Phoenix (pop. 1.55 million) or Philadelphia (pop. 1.45 million). More people were arrested for marijuana offenses than live in the cities of Jacksonville (pop. 805,000) or San Francisco (pop. 764,000). Based on the overall drug arrest figures, somebody got busted for dope every 18 seconds in 2008, and somebody got busted for pot every 37 seconds.

Last year, marijuana arrests accounted for nearly half -- 49.8% -- of all drug arrests, up slightly from the 47% in 2007. The vast majority of marijuana arrests -- 89% -- were for possession only, meaning that more than three-quarters of a million Americans got busted last year not for drug trafficking or manufacture, but as nothing more than pot consumers. In two regions of the country, the South and the Midwest, simple marijuana possession arrests accounted for more than half of all drug arrests.

Similarly, when all drug arrests are tabulated, possession arrests constituted 83.3% of the total. That means out of the 1.7 million total drug arrests, only about 300,000 were for "drug dealing" or manufacture, and 93,640 of those were for marijuana, which includes people growing even one plant or for medical reasons.

While last year's pot bust numbers represent a 3% decline from 2007, the 2008 numbers are still the second highest annual toll on record. Marijuana arrests stood at about 300,000 in 1991 before climbing sharply during the Clinton administration to more than 700,000 by 2000. During the Bush administration, annual pot arrests continued to climb, but more slowly, going over 800,000 in 2006 and reaching the all-time high of more than 872,000 in 2007.

While the trend over the past two decades has been upwards, this isn't the first year that marijuana arrests have declined over the previous year. Similar blips have happened five times since 1990.

The number of drug arrests in 2008 was about three times the number of people arrested for all violent crimes (595,000) and greater than the number of people arrested for all property crimes (1.68 million).

Defenders of the status quo eager to downplay the consequences of drug prohibition are wont to argue that many arrests aren't really arrests -- some people are ticketed or cited and released -- or that hardly anybody goes to jail, especially for marijuana. There is a small degree of truth in each argument, but being arrested on a drug charge, even a marijuana possession charge, carries serious consequences for the arrestee.

People arrested face legal fees, fines, and, quite possibly, time behind bars, even for marijuana offenses. Upon conviction, they also face a raft of collateral consequences ranging from loss of access to student loans, public housing, and other federal benefits to loss of (or inability to obtain) professional licenses, problems with employment, and loss of children to state child welfare agencies.

The 2008 arrest figures come just days after the National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported that the number of adult marijuana smokers increased from 22 million in 2007 to 22.5 million last year. The number of Americans over age 12 who admitted ever smoking marijuana was also at an all-time, both in raw numbers and as a percentage of the population. Last year, 41%, or more than 102 million Americans said they had tried marijuana.

Drug reformers were quick to use the arrest figures to call for change. "In our current economic climate, we simply cannot afford to keep arresting more than three people every minute in the failed 'war on drugs,'" said Jack Cole, a retired undercover narcotics detective who now heads Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.

Cole also warned of the collateral consequences of a drug arrest. "You can get over an addiction, but you will never get over a conviction," he said.

The pot people, revved up by a seeming seismic shift in popular attitudes now underway, were also quick on the attack. "Federal statistics released just last week indicate that larger percentages of Americans are using cannabis at the same time that police are arresting a near-record number of Americans for pot-related offenses," said Allen St. Pierre, head of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). "Present enforcement policies are costing American taxpayers tens of billions of dollars, ruining the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans, and having no impact on marijuana availability or marijuana use in this country. It is time to end this failed policy and replace prohibition with a policy of marijuana regulation, taxation, and education."

"This slight dip in the number of marijuana arrests provides a small amount of relief to the tens of millions of American marijuana consumers who have been under attack by their own government for decades," said Marijuana Policy Project executive director Rob Kampia. "It's time to stop wasting billions of tax dollars criminalizing responsible Americans for using a substance that's safer than alcohol, and to put an end to policies that simply hand this massive consumer market to unregulated criminals."

Do the slight declines in marijuana arrests or overall drug arrests mean that change is around the corner or that policing policies are becoming more enlightened? The answer is "no," said Eric Sterling, head of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation.

"The declines are so slight as to be almost insignificant," said Sterling. "What we do know is that in various law enforcement agencies around the country, they've been laying off cops. Chiefs have been getting orders from mayors and county executives to cut overtime. There are 10,000 different law enforcement agencies, and they're all facing financial trouble. These kinds of pressures reduce the number of police hours that can be devoted to these kinds of cases," he said.

The small declines in drug arrests do not represent any serious policy change, Sterling said. "If there was any significant change in policies, you wouldn't see a minor dip. If we saw a drop of a third, that would tell us there is a change in policy, but anyone who looks at these numbers and thinks they represent change is grasping at straws."

Drug prohibition mindlessly grinds on, chewing up and spitting out more than a million and a half Americans each year. It may have suffered a few hiccups because of the country's financial woes, but there is as yet no sign that anything has really changed.

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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