Marijuana possession arrests edged up slightly in 2016, a year in which voters in four states approved recreational marijuana initiatives and voters in three others approved medical marijuana measures.
These figures should be regarded as estimates, because not all law enforcement agencies provide detailed arrest information to the FBI. But they do show that the annual number of marijuana arrests is down from their peak in the mid-2000s and stands at levels last seen in the mid 1990s. Marijuana use, particularly among adults, rose during this time.
Marijuana possession remains one of the single largest arrest categories in the United States, accounting for over 5 percent of all arrests last year. More than one in 20 arrests involved a marijuana possession charge, amounting to more than one marijuana possession arrest every minute.
This article is roughly 500 words long. Assuming an average adult reading speed of around 250 words per minute, that means that in the time it takes you to finish this story, an average of two Americans will be arrested for marijuana possession.
Overall in 2016, roughly 1.5 million people were arrested for drug-related offenses, up slightly year-over-year. Advocates for a more public health-centered approach to drug use say numbers like these show the drug war never really went away.
“Criminalizing drug use has devastated families across the US, particularly in communities of color, and for no good reason,” said Maria McFarland Sánchez Moreno, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, in a statement. “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.”
The question of what to do about drug use has become particularly urgent in recent years as deaths from opioid overdoses have skyrocketed. The Drug Policy Alliance points out that Portugal, where the personal possession and use of drugs was decriminalized in 2001, has one of the lowest drug overdose rates in western Europe.
In the United States, on the other hand, most drug use remains criminalized. The current attorney general, Jeff Sessions, wants to crack down further on drug use. Among other things he’s reinstated mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug offenses, recruited a drug war hard-liner to review current marijuana policy, and spoken out repeatedly against the current state-level trend toward marijuana legalization.
Many public health experts have called for illicit drug use to be decriminalized in the United States, arguing that many of the negative effects of the drug trade — crime, disease, over-incarceration — are a result of strict policies that leaves drug users nowhere to turn but the black market. This is particularly true for substances like marijuana, whose effects at the individual and societal level are typically less harmful than even legal substances like alcohol.
National polling shows support for recreational marijuana use hovering around 60 percent. Eight states plus the District of Columbia now allow recreational use of the drug. But the latest FBI numbers suggest that, at the national level at least, this hasn’t yet led to significant changes to pot policing in other states.