Cannabis has been gaining lots of public support over the last decade. The federally illegal plant has been made legal for some type of medical or recreational use in the majority of U.S. states. Currently 33 states allow for at least some type of medical cannabis use and 11 allow for adult recreational use. The stigma around the drug has also lessened, with two thirds of Americans now supporting national legalization. Cannabis was even deemed essential in many states during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Still, despite the public support and medical use of the drug, cannabis remains federally illegal and arresting people who use still seems to be a big priority for crime enforcement. According to the recently released Uniform Crime Report from the FBI, more people were arrested for cannabis in 2019 than for all violent crimes put together.
The data from the FBI’s report revealed that police arrested 545,602 people for cannabis related crimes in 2019. That arrest rate is 9% higher than the 495,871 people arrested for violent crimes the same year. And those being arrested for cannabis aren’t just those making money from selling, growing or manufacturing the drug – they are mostly just people who use cannabis. The vast majority of these arrests (92%) were for simple possession of the drug. 500,395 of those arrested for cannabis were simply found in possession of cannabis. Even if we take out all the arrests for being involved in unregulated cannabis commerce and just focus on arrests for cannabis possession, the numbers still outpace arrests for violent crimes.
This highlights the inequitable situation between states, where cannabis consumers in one state may face serious jail time for an act that has no penalties at all in the state next door. It also makes some question whether law enforcement resources could be better allocated to fighting more serious crimes – instead of focusing on busting people for using a common recreational and medicinal plant.
“Police across America make a marijuana-related arrest every 58 seconds,” explains Erik Altieri, the Executive Director for cannabis advocacy group NORML. “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.”
Still, arrests for cannabis actually went down by 18% overall last year, when compared to 2018. This could be partly due to legal changes in Texas, which resulted in far fewer cannabis arrests there than in 2018. House Bill 1325 legalized hemp production in the state last year, which shifted the definition of cannabis to exclude hemp. Hemp and cannabis are actually the same type of plant, but it is legally considered to be hemp when it contains less than 0.3% THC (the main psychoactive compound in the plant). When it exceeds that THC limit, it is considered to be cannabis. This change apparently made it more difficult for police to make arrests without testing the seized plant material to determine if it was hemp or cannabis. This drastically cut down on Texas’ number of arrests for cannabis in 2019, with over 50,000 fewer arrests.
Despite legalization efforts, arrests for cannabis reached an all time peak a decade ago, with close to 800,000 cannabis possession arrests. And while those numbers have decreased over the last decade, they had been increasing again over the last three years.
The data from the FBI also gave clues to where this year’s cannabis arrests were more likely to take place. They found that cannabis arrests were least likely to happen in western states – which have mostly all legalized the drug. But those in the northeast may want to take particular caution around following cannabis laws. 53% of all drug arrests took place in the northeast part of the country last year.
In addition to those dwelling in the northeast, those in the black community may also be at particular risk of being arrested for cannabis crimes. A recent report from the ACLU looked at data from 2018, and found that black people were 3.6 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than white people. This is despite the fact that both groups use cannabis at similar rates. Even in western states with recreational cannabis laws, black people were 1.5-1.8% more likely to be arrested for having cannabis. In states with the worst racial disparity in arrests, like Montana and Kentucky, black people were 9.4-9.6% more likely to be arrested. In some counties, disparities were so high, black people were 50 times more likely to be arrested.