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How Common are Marijuana Arrests?

When most people think of the War on Drugs, they think of Mexican or Columbian narcotics cartels and big-time cocaine and heroin investigations.  But statistics show that a surprising proportion of drug arrests are for simple marijuana.  And the proportion is rising.

According to FBI Uniform Crime Reports on Drug War Facts tables, marijuana arrests were 39.9% of total drug arrests way back in 1995.  Fifteen years later, in 2010, marijuana arrests had risen to 52.1% of total drug arrests.  But it’s not arrests for marijuana sales or trafficking that are boosting the percentage.  Those have wavered only a few points (roughly between 5 and 6% of total drug arrests).  It’s the arrests for marijuana possession that are going up.  In 1995, arrests for marijuana possession were 34.1% of total drug arrests.  In 2010, they were 45.8%.  So, today, pretty close to half of all U.S. drug arrests are for marijuana possession.

In terms of raw numbers, in 2010 there were calculated to be over 750,000 arrests in the U.S. for possessing marijuana.  That’s three-quarters of a million arrests just for possession!  That’s substantially more than the arrests for all violent crimes combined (about 552,000).

Most people are shocked to hear that marijuana arrests, especially just for possession, are such a large and growing segment of the War on Drugs.  But it’s true.  And it’s perplexing given that it’s been estimated that 95 million Americans have smoked marijuana at some point in their lives.  When a nation’s policy criminalizes such a vast proportion of its population, wouldn’t it seem that the time has come to reevaluate the law or at least to reformulate its enforcement priorities?  However you may personally feel about marijuana or the implications or effects of its use, don’t you have to wonder whether the money we’ve spent on the drug war – now in excess of a trillion dollars and no closer to being “won” than when Richard Nixon declared it – is a prudent use of our scarce resources?

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