The War on Drugs pertinaciously continues unabated, despite spreading marijuana legalization and a growing desire for new directions in drug policy. In fact, last year more than three times the number of people were arrested for drugs—including weed—than for all violent crimes combined.
According to the FBI’s newest Uniform Crime Report, marijuana arrests in 2016 rose by more than 75,000, compared to 2015, which is an increase of 12 percent. Overall drug arrests in 2016 increased to 1.57 million—a 5.63 percent rise from 2015—which includes marijuana arrests.
Statistics Average 3 Drug Arrests Per Minute, 24/7, Throughout 2016
More than four out of five of those arrests—84.6 percent, or 1,330,401 arrests—were simply for drug possession. Marijuana arrests also increased—about 41 percent of all drug arrests were for marijuana, with the vast majority being for simple possession.
Drug offenses are the single largest category of crimes for which people were arrested last year, more than burglaries, DUIs or any other criminal offense.
Unlike Uniform Crime Reports released in previous years, this year’s report did not immediately make data on specific offenses, such as drug possession, or drug sales, available, nor did it categorize arrests by type of drug.
The Marijuana Policy Project contacted the FBI for clarification and were able to discern that about 653,000 people were arrested on marijuana charges in 2016, although the FBI did not provide data on how many of those arrests were basic possession charges.
“According to the ACLU, marijuana arrests now account for over half of all drug arrests in the United States. Of the 8.2 million marijuana arrests between 2001 and 2010, 88 percent were for simply having marijuana.
“Of the 1,488,707 arrests for drug law violations in 2015, 83.9 percent (1,249,025 arrests) were for possession of a controlled substance. Only 16.1 percent (239,682 arrests) were for the sale or manufacturing of a controlled substance.”
These figures mark a sharp increase from a decade ago. (Pot arrests peaked at nearly 800,000 in 2007.)
The Sharp Rise In Weed Arrests Despite Legalization
The sharp rise in marijuana-related arrests, especially last year, requires an explanation, as it comes after an unprecedented wave of broad, sweeping marijuana legalization.
As of 2016, recreational use of marijuana is legal in Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Oregon, Nevada, Washington State and Washington, D.C.
According to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), “The arrest statistics aren’t broken down into specific drugs, or drug convictions. The number of people with drug-related offenses includes all drugs, possession, distribution, etc.”
Despite the lack of specific offense data, 2016 is unlikely to turn out markedly different from previous years when it comes to the mix of drug arrests. Past years typically had simple drug possession offenses accounting for 85-90 percent of all drug arrests, and small-time marijuana possession arrests accounting for approximately 40 percent.
This means that, of the more than 1.5 million drug arrests last year, probably 1.3 million of them were not major drug traffickers. Instead, they were probably people who got caught with small amounts of drugs for personal use.
“It is truly disheartening that there has been an uptick in drug-related arrests, while the vast majority of states now seek to legalize and minimize the penalties for marijuana usage.” said attorney David C. Holland, Esq., of Holland Litigation. “All the efforts that those states have made to eliminate the period of incarceration and reduce the dramatic short- and long-term stigmatization from such arrests have been completely undermined. The time has come for law enforcement to reprioritize its objectives and to go after those drugs that have proven far more lethal and insidious to our society, including the pervasive abuse of alcohol, and the tragic deaths and family disintegration that it causes.”
“Criminalizing drug use has devastated families across the U.S., particularly in communities of color, and for no good reason,” said Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “Far from helping people who are struggling with addiction, the threat of arrest often keeps them from accessing health services, and increases the risk of overdose, or other harms.”
Earlier this year, the United Nations and World Health Organization released a joint statement calling for the repeal of laws that criminalize drug use and possession. They join an impressive group of national and international organizations who have endorsed drug decriminalization. This includes the International Red Cross, Organization of American States, the NAACP and the American Public Health Association, among many others.
War on Drugs Leads to More Arrests and Racial Tensions
Perpetuating the War on Drugs leads not only to the criminalization of millions, but also perpetuates racially biased outcomes and heightens racial tensions in the U.S.
Black people make up just 13 percent of the U.S. population and use drugs at similar rates to other ethnic groups, but they constitute 29 percent of all drug arrests and 35 percent of people who were incarcerated for drug offenses, many of whom languish in for-profit prisons. (Incidentally, according to CNN Money, the stocks of the two biggest private prison operators—CoreCivic and Geo Group—have doubled since President Trump was elected.)
Similarly, the War on Drugs has a hugely negative impact on immigrants, fueling mass detentions and deportations.
Non-citizens, including legal permanent residents—many of whom have been here for decades, have jobs and have relatives who are U.S. citizens—face removal for possessing any drug (except first-time possession of less than 30 grams of marijuana).
Between 2007 and 2012, more than a quarter million people were deported for drug offenses, including more than 100,000 deported for simple drug possession. Their arrests can trigger automatic detention and deportation, often without the possibility of return.
“The drug war has increasingly become a war against migrant communities. It fuels racial profiling, border militarization, violence against immigrants, intrusive government surveillance and, especially, widespread detentions and deportations,” states the Drug Policy Alliance’s website.
Attorney James Coatney of Coatney Law argues that if any U.S. citizen is arrested for marijuana possession or cultivation in one state—such as his client in Missouri—whereas it is legal in another state, they are having their constitutional, 14th Amendment rights violated. The Equal Protection Clause provides that no state shall deny to any person within its jurisdiction “the equal protection of the laws”.
According to Jag Davies, director of communications for the Drug Policy Alliance, “We now have a federal administration determined to ramp up the drug war—but most drug enforcement is carried out at the local and state levels, so jurisdictions across the U.S. are responding to President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, by pushing drug policy reforms forward, with increasing urgency.”