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Even with more legalization, marijuana arrests were up last year

Someone was arrested for a marijuana offense every 48 seconds in 2017, according to new data from the FBI. Arrests for marijuana offenses rose across the U.S. last year even as more states legalized the drug. Moreover, the increase was driven by arrests for mere possession.

According to data from the FBI's annual Uniform Crime Report, 659,700 people were arrested for marijuana crimes in 2017, which was up from 653,249 in 2016. Of those 2017 marijuana arrests, 599,282 were for possession, compared with 587,516 in 2016. Arrests for sales and manufacturing of the drug actually dropped.

Arrests involving marijuana accounted for 40.4 percent of all drug arrests in 2017. Overall drug arrests also increased last year, from 1,572,579 in 2016 to 1,632,921 in 2017.

This jump in arrests for marijuana possession comes at a time when decriminalization and legalization are increasing. Nine states and Washington, D.C., have legalized possession of the drug for those 21 and over, and 14 others have decriminalized possession, meaning they have reduced the offense level to a citation.

What could be driving this upswing in marijuana possession arrests? Reasonable scenarios explaining a nationwide increase are hard to devise when possession is legal or decriminalized in 23 states and the District. After all, that means there should be essentially no arrests, at least involving people 21 and over, in almost half of the states. Could a large upturn in arrests of people under 21 explain it?

Focusing on marijuana could be taking critical resources away from addressing the opioid crisis at a time when opioid overdoses cause over 100 deaths every day. Marijuana, by contrast, is never lethal.

The surge in arrests for marijuana possession also appears to go against public opinion. Beyond the 23 states where marijuana possession is legal or decriminalized, the majority of states have legalized cannabis for medical use. (Iowa has only legalized the use of medical CBD, a cannabis extract, in low-THC applications for qualifying medical treatment.)

"In a day and age where twenty percent of the population lives in states which have legalized and nearly every state has some legal protections for medical cannabis or its extract, the time for lawmakers to end this senseless and cruel prohibition that ruins lives," commented the political director of NORML.

Are you surprised to learn that arrests for marijuana possession have proliferated even though the majority of states have taken steps to decriminalize or legalize for at least some purposes? It goes to show that, despite apparent advances by the movement to legalize marijuana, the danger of arrest is far from over, especially in states like Iowa where legalization has not occurred.

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