Millions of Americans have been incarcerated for non-violent marijuana charges. But, arrest and conviction on a pot charge mean more than fines and time spent behind bars: A criminal record that follows offenders for life is oftentimes the most detrimental.

It typically doesn’t matter that your only ‘crime’ was simple cannabis possession; all an employer, bank, or landlord will see is the checkmark on your application indicating that you were convicted of a crime.

marrijuana arrests

How bad is this problem? Bad enough that it has helped spark a nascent but powerful movement to reform the criminal justice system in America. That effort has drawn wide support from across the partisan aisle, a novelty in modern American politics.

Laws Vary by State

Cannabis is illegal for any use under federal law. State laws vary, with some permitting access to legal recreational marijuana, others imposing only civil fines, others allowing the drug for medicinal purposes, and still, others banning it completely under felony or misdemeanor statutes.

More than 6.1 million people were arrested in the United States on cannabis charges between 2010 and 2018, according to the ACLU. The vast majority of those busts, 89.6%, were for simple possession. In 2018 alone, marijuana arrests made up 43% of all drug arrests, more than any other substance.

Though cannabis-related arrests have decreased by 18% since 2010, more arrests were made in 2018 than in 2015. Experts foresaw the number of arrests to decrease as states legalizing adult-use continues to increase. However, arrest rates in many illegal states have increased.

Shifting Attitudes toward Cannabis Law

Legalization is gaining popularity among voters of all ages and political associations. A Pew Research Center survey from 2019 reported that two-thirds of U.S. adults support legalizing recreational use of marijuana for adults 21 years and older. Just 8% of Americans surveyed said that marijuana should be illegal.

American jails and prisons are filled to the brim, one of the motivating facts behind the effort to reform the criminal justice system. At the federal level, a massive portion of the inmate population is behind bars for drug crimes, and marijuana offenses make up more than half of that amount. More than a quarter of all inmates in the federal prison system are small-time cannabis offenders.

Fewer Marijuana Arrests at State Level

The picture is very different at the state level. There, roughly 16 percent of prison inmates were sentenced under drug laws. This suggests the feds are far more obsessed with busting drug users than most states.

Of course, marijuana users are more likely to be arrested and charged in some states than in others. If you live in Colorado, Oregon or California, you don’t need to worry; very few people get busted for petty possession in those states. On the other end of the scale, arrest is much more likely in Wyoming, Kansas, Louisiana, or Mississippi.

Racial Disparities

There are deep racial disparities in these arrest rates pretty much everywhere. The ACLU found that Black Americans are busted at much higher rates than white Americans, even though both races use cannabis at the same rate. This disparity exists in every county in the country, the ACLU reported.

Many of these statistics are likely to change in coming months and years, some dramatically. But, the fact remains that the United States still locks up a disproportionate number of its citizens and residents for nothing more serious than smoking pot.

Marijuana Arrest Rates

View the latest marijuana arrest rates below:

Marijuana Arrest Rates
Year Total Arrests Total Drug Arrests Total Marijuana Arrests Marijuana Trafficking/Sale Arrests Marijuana Possession Arrests Total Violent Crime Arrests Total Property Crime Arrests
2014 11,205,833 1,561,231 700,993 81,184 619,809 498,666 1,553,980
2013 11,302,102 1,501,043 693,482 84,058 609,423 480,360 1,559,284
2012 12,196,959 1,552,432 749,825 91,593 658,231 521,196 1,646,212
2011 12,408,899 1,531,251 757,969 94,937 663,032 534,704 1,639,883
2010 13,120,947 1,638,846 853,839 103,247 750,591 552,077 1,643,962
2009 13,687,241 1,663,582 858,408 99,815 758,593 581,765 1,728,285
2008 14,005,615 1,702,537 847,863 93,640 754,224 594,911 1,687,345
2007 14,209,365 1,841,182 872,720 97,583 775,137 597,447 1,610,088
2006 14,380,370 1,889,810 829,627 90,711 738,916 611,523 1,540,297
2005 14,094,186 1,846,351 786,545 90,471 696,074 603,503 1,609,327
2004 13,938,071 1,746,570 773,731 87,329 686,402 586,558 1,644,197
2003 13,639,479 1,678,192 755,186 92,300 662,886 597,026 1,605,127
2002 13,741,438 1,538,813 697,082 83,096 613,986 620,510 1,613,954
2001 13,699,254 1,586,902 723,628 82,519 641,109 627,132 1,618,465
2000 13,980,297 1,579,566 734,497 88,455 646,042 625,132 1,620,928
1999 14,355,600 1,557,100 716,266 85,641 630,626 644,770 1,676,100
1998 14,528,300 1,559,100 682,885 84,191 598,694 675,900 1,805,600
1997 15,284,300 1,583,600 695,201 88,682 606,519 717,750 2,015,600
1996 15,168,100 1,506,200 641,642 94,891 546,751 729,900 2,045,600
1995 15,119,800 1,476,100 588,964 85,614 503,350 796,250 2,128,600
1990 14,195,100 1,089,500 326,850 66,460 260,390 705,500 2,217,800
1980 10,441,000 580,900 401,982 63,318 338,664 475,160 1,863,300