With marijuana rapidly going legal and public attitudes toward the drug softening by the minute, common sense suggests police would arrest fewer people on cannabis charges. Common sense, as it turns out, isn’t always the same as reality.
Law enforcement agencies across the United States – local, state, and federal – are arresting people for marijuana offenses at record rates, according to data released by the FBI in September. Last year alone, more than 620,000 people were arrested for simple possession, an act that is legal in four states and decriminalized in more than a dozen others.
What’s more, the real number is probably much higher because several states report little or no crime data to the FBI each year. At the reported rate, one person is busted for cannabis every minute in the United States – 1,700 per day.
Lives destroyed by needless arrests
Even accounting for the dropped charges and acquittals, many of those thousands of lives are irreparably damaged by jail time and criminal records. Cannabis arrests account for more than 5 percent of all arrests in the United States, a highly disproportionate number. The same number was just 2 percent 20 years ago, at the start of the war on drugs.
The new numbers paint a portrait of revolt by police across the country. Arrests for simple possession have plummeted in Colorado, Oregon, and other states where the drug is legal, but many other states are overcompensating by arresting more people. Presumably many of these police officers are reacting to the popular perception that marijuana should be legal – a perception they dispute.
“It’s unacceptable that police still put this many people in handcuffs for something that a growing majority of Americans think should be legal,” said Tom Angell of the Marijuana Majority. “There’s just no good reason that so much police time and taxpayer money is spent punishing people for marijuana when so many murders, rapes, and robberies go unsolved.”
Indeed, the solve rates for major felonies in the United States is abysmally low, proof that cracking down on drugs doesn’t reduce other types of crime. Police clear less than half of cases involving every type of violent crime except homicide (63 percent) and aggravated assault (55 percent).
Marijuana busts cost the taxpayer
Americans waste huge amounts on money on marijuana busts. Each arrest costs taxpayers at least $750, according to the ACLU, not including court and detention costs. At that rate, the states wasted almost half a billion dollars on simple marijuana arrests in 2014.
“These numbers refute the myth that nobody actually gets arrested for using marijuana,” said Mason Tvert, spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project. “It’s hard to imagine why more people were arrested for marijuana possession when fewer people than ever believe it should be a crime.”
The consequences of an arrest are severe, even if it doesn’t lead to criminal charges or trial. A simple arrest record can block housing opportunities, cut off access to public benefits, and severely restrict employment opportunities.