40% of All US Drug Arrests in 2018 Were For Weed Possession
Cops arrested around 663,000 people for cannabis-related offenses in 2018, but 92 percent of those arrests were for possession alone.
Published on January 22, 2020

Inch-by-inch, America is moving toward cannabis reform. To date, 33 states have legalized medical marijuana, 11 states have legalized adult-use cannabis, and 26 more states have decriminalized minor pot possession. Altogether, 29 percent of the entire US adult population currently lives in a state where pot is legal.

Yet, in spite of these figures, US cops still arrest far more people for weed than they do for illegal-use or sales of opioids, heroin, crack, or any other drug.

A recent report by the Pew Research Center reveals that 40 percent of all Americans arrested for drug offenses in 2018 were busted for pot. According to FBI crime data, cops in all 50 states, plus Washington DC, made 1.65 million drug arrests in 2018. Over 663,000 of those arrests were for cannabis-related offenses alone. And, instead of cracking down on drug smugglers and black market dealers, cops are keeping their sights on everyday users: Over 9 out of every 10 pot arrests were for simple possession.

In comparison, only 25 percent of all 2018 drug busts were for dangerous drugs like heroin or cocaine. Arrests for manufactured drugs, like synthetic "marijuana," only accounted for 6 percent of all arrests, and the remaining 29 percent of arrests were for “other” drugs.

Estimating the exact decline from year-to-year is a difficult task, however. FBI crime data is compiled from police departments that willingly submit their data, and the exact number of departments that choose to do so varies. Despite this difficulty, it's at least clear that the overall rate of weed arrests is on the decline as more states legalize.

“As a share of all reported drug arrests in the US, marijuana arrests have decreased in the last decade and are now at their lowest level in at least 20 years, down from 52% of all drug arrests in 2010,” said John Gramlich of the Pew Research Center.

Although the overall percentage of weed-related arrests is declining, the total number of pot arrests since 2016 is climbing slowly. That year, cops made around 653,000 pot arrests — about 2 percent fewer than the 663,000 arrests made in 2018. 

The percentage of arrests for possession have also been increasing. In 2011, 13 percent of pot busts were for selling or manufacturing, and 87 percent were for possession. By 2018, the rate of selling and manufacturing arrests fell to 8 percent, with the remaining 92 percent of arrests being for possession.

This report highlights a disconnect between the priorities of law enforcement and the taxpayers who fund them. A Pew survey from last fall reported that two-thirds of Americans are in favor of national adult-use legalization, and several other recent polls have reported similar percentages.

Chris Moore
Chris Moore is a New York-based writer who has written for Mass Appeal while also mixing records and producing electronic music.
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