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In parts of Iowa, 20% of all arrests are for marijuana possession

With so many states legalizing marijuana, you might think that the urgency to enforce marijuana laws is waning. After all, states wouldn't be legalizing if they were still convinced that marijuana's effects were as dangerous as those of other drugs.

Yet whatever the change in opinion has brought 33 states to broadly legalize cannabis for medical and even recreational purposes, it still has not affected the federal government. That leaves marijuana illegal at the federal level. It has not persuaded lawmakers in Iowa to go beyond a very limited exception for low-THC medical CBD.

It also hasn't changed the enforcement policies of many of our police and prosecutors. On average nationwide, as many as 6% of all arrests were for marijuana possession in 2017. In many jurisdictions, marijuana possession accounts for 10%, 20% or an even greater percentage of arrests.

In a few areas, simple possession of marijuana accounts for a truly outstanding percentage of arrests overall:

  • Dooley County, Georgia - 54.5% of all arrests
  • Hamilton County, New York - 43.5% of all arrests
  • Sterling County, Texas - 42.1% of all arrests
  • Hartley County, Texas - 42% of all arrests
  • Edmunds County, South Dakota - 33.3% of all arrests

An analysis by and the Washington Post contains a map with each reporting county color-coded by the percentage of all 2016 arrests that were for marijuana possession. Of those Iowa counties that reported data, the majority appear to fall into the 10%-20% range.

The War on Drugs continues to incentivize marijuana enforcement suggests a couple of reasons why enforcement rates might remain so high despite changing opinion about the seriousness of marijuana possession. For one thing, the federal government continues to fund drug task forces and other initiatives that can lead to marijuana arrests.

Another factor may be civil asset forfeiture, which allows police and prosecutors to seize the money and property of those accused of drug crimes and certain other offenses. Once the cash or assets have been seized, the accused person has to prove that their money and property was not associated with or the proceeds of criminal behavior. If they can't prove that -- and many people can't -- the agency that seized the assets gets to keep them as long as the amount seized isn't "excessive."

The opportunity to seize property from alleged drug offenders may be providing an incentive for law enforcement to continue targeting low-level marijuana offenders. This is what people often call "policing for profit."

If you have been arrested for marijuana possession, don't just plead guilty. A drug conviction can have long-term consequences on your life and opportunities. Contact an experienced criminal defense attorney for advice.

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