According to data collected by the FBI, law enforcement officers in the U.S. arrested approximately 663,000 people for marijuana-related offenses in 2018, the latest year for which data is available. It’s still the most commonly charged drug in the U.S., despite the fact that 33 states have at least partially legalized it.
Marijuana accounted for 40% of all drug arrests for possession, sale and manufacturing/cultivation in 2018. That includes all 50 states and Washington, D.C.
According to the Pew Research Center, there are no FBI statistics on marijuana arrest patterns at the state level. However, it’s interesting to note that in the West, where marijuana is legal for adult recreational use in six of 13 states, the percentage of drug arrests related to marijuana was down to only 15%. Here in the Midwest, marijuana-related offenses made up half of all drug arrests.
Moreover, of all marijuana arrests in 2018, 92% were for simple possession. Moreover, the percentage of marijuana arrests for possession alone has been on the rise. In 2011, for example, 87% of marijuana arrests were for possession.
Focused enforcement continues despite support for legalization
As of today, 11 states have legalized marijuana for adult recreational use. The District of Columbia and 26 other states have decriminalized possession of the drug, meaning that possessing a small amount for personal use results in a civil or local infraction rather than a state-level crime. And, 33 states and Washington, D.C. have legalized marijuana for regulated medical consumption.
In September, the Pew Research Center found public support for marijuana legalization to be high — fully two-thirds of adults in the U.S. supported some type of legalization, while 59% supported legalizing it for medical and recreational use. Only 8% of U.S. adults said it should not be legal at all.
The fact that people are still being arrested at high rates does not necessarily mean that the police aren’t listening to calls for legalization. Even in states where weed is legal for adult recreational purposes, people can still be arrested for underage possession, for example, or for possessing more than the allowable limit. Moreover, marijuana is still illegal federally, which leaves even legal users potentially open to federal charges.
At the same time, we need to ask ourselves if law enforcement still needs to be so heavily focused on marijuana enforcement. When a large majority of Americans wants to end the War on Drugs, at least when it comes to marijuana, the police should heed the call.