Advocates of drug policy reform have long criticized high rate of marijuana arrests as misplaced criminal justice priorities. Pictured: Denver Police put handcuffs on a man being arrested for having marijuana in Civic Center Park in 2009. (RJ Sangosti, Denver Post file)

Marijuana arrests fall to lowest level since 1996

The FBI statistics show law enforcement is spending less time on marijuana arrests, yet it still works out to more than one arrest every minute

Arrests for simple marijuana possession in the United States fell to nearly a two-decade low last year, according to new statistics released Monday by the FBI.

The number of arrests for marijuana possession in 2015 — 574,641 — is the lowest number since 1996. It represents a 7 percent year-over-year drop, and roughly a 25 percent drop from the peak of close to 800,000 marijuana possession arrests in 2007.

The FBI data suggest that, in aggregate, law enforcement officers are devoting less time to marijuana enforcement relative to other drugs. In 2010, for instance, marijuana sales and possession together accounted for 52 percent of all drug arrests. By 2015, that number had fallen to 43 percent. By contrast, the numbers show police have been making more arrests for cocaine and heroin, and for other non-narcotic drugs.

Still, the marijuana possession arrest rate works out to more than one arrest every minute.

Advocates of drug policy reform have long criticized the high rate of marijuana arrests as misplaced criminal justice priorities. The Drug Policy Alliance calls marijuana arrests “the engine driving the U.S. war on drugs” and says that “the huge number of marijuana arrests every year usurps scarce law enforcement, criminal justice and treatment resources at enormous cost to taxpayers.”

A widely-cited 2013 ACLU report estimated that the total cost to taxpayers of marijuana possession enforcement in the U.S. was $3.6 billion. It also found that while whites and blacks use marijuana at similar rates, black users were four times more likely than whites to be arrested for it.

Opponents of relaxing marijuana laws point out that very few people — fewer than 1 percent of state inmates — actually serve prison time for marijuana possession.

Arrests can be devastating on their own, however. Most people arrested for marijuana use held in jail for at least a day and receive a criminal record that can affect their employment, according to a Drug Policy Alliance report from earlier this year.

The criminalization of marijuana use can also lead to police encounters that turn out to be fatal. Police officers in Charlotte, North Carolina say they confronted Keith Lamont Scott earlier this month after allegedly observing him in a car with a suspected marijuana blunt and a handgun. Scott was ultimately shot and killed in the encounter.

This fall, five states will vote on whether to legalize recreational marijuana. Four more will vote on medical marijuana.

This story was first published on WashingtonPost.com