FBI: Cannabis arrests on the rise for 3rd year running

Published on October 4, 2019 · Last updated July 28, 2020
More than 650,000 marijuana arrests still happen across the United States every year. Black Americans are your times more likely to be arrested for cannabis than white Americans. (FOTOKITA/iStock)

The number of US cannabis arrests continued to climb last year, new federal data show, in spite of increasing legal and public approval for the plant.

Law enforcement made an estimated 663,367 cannabis-related arrests in 2018, according to FBI data released this week, up from an estimated 659,700 the previous year. That’s more than one cannabis arrest per minute in 2018—the same year a record two-thirds of Americans (66%) said they support legalization.

“These numbers are incredibly disheartening,” Sheila Vakharia, PhD, deputy director for academic engagement at the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a phone call with Leafly. “They’re not significantly different from previous years, despite the fact that we see states passing increasing and more progressive marijuana reforms, both as decriminalization and legalization.”

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More than 1.6 million arrests in 2018 were drug-related, according to the FBI report, which compiles data from many but not all US law enforcement groups, including state, local, and tribal authorities. And of the roughly 40% of those that had to do with cannabis, the vast majority were for simply possessing the plant or its products.

“The War on Drugs isn’t over. The war on cannabis consumers and patients isn’t even over: it’s escalating.”

It’s the third consecutive year cannabis arrests have risen, reversing a trend of declining arrests that began after 2007, when the number peaked at a record 872,721 total cannabis arrests.

“At a time when the overwhelming majority of Americans want cannabis to be legal and regulated, it is an outrage that many police departments across the country continue to waste tax dollars and limited law enforcement resources on arresting otherwise law-abiding citizens for simple marijuana possession,” NORML Executive Director Erik Altieri said in a statement.

Nearly 91% of all cannabis arrests in 2018—or approximately 608,776—were for simple possession. That’s a slightly higher portion than in 2017, when roughly 599,282 people were arrested for possession.

Cannabis possession arrest rates were highest in the Northeast region, making up nearly half of all drug-possession arrests, followed closely by the Midwest and Southern regions. In the West, where multiple large states have legalized the plant for adult use, arrests for cannabis possession were much lower, making up just 13.4% of all drug arrests.

“What this tells us is that marijuana remains the lowest-hanging fruit for drug policing in the United States,” Vakharia said, “and that decriminalization isn’t enough: More states need to move forward beyond decriminalization toward legalization.”

“We also need to see a shift in police practices and priorities,” she continued. “We know that even if these arrests don’t result in convictions and incarceration or jail time, even the mark of having an arrest record [can] haunt people and follow them and limit or restrict their opportunities in life: the ability to pursue certain types of employment, to secure housing, and to engage in a variety of activities.”

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The nonprofit group Cage-Free Cannabis, a social justice nonprofit that has helped lead efforts to expunge cannabis-related criminal records through National Expungement Week and other programs, agreed that the FBI’s data highlights ongoing problems with how our nation handles drugs.

“The War on Drugs isn’t over. The war on cannabis consumers and patients isn’t even over: it’s escalating, and we know from past experience that it’s disproportionately affecting communities of color,” the group said in an emailed statement. “The increase in arrests for cannabis offenses underscores the need for immediate federal legalization, automated expungement, and repair of the harms done by prohibition.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Sheila Vakharia.

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Janet Burns
Janet Burns
Janet Burns is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn who finds drugs, tech, labor, and culture extremely interesting, among other things. She also hosts the cannabis news and conversation podcast The Toke.
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