Federal cannabis arrests declined by nearly 69% over the last decade, according to a new report by the US Department of Justice.
A decade ago, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) arrested more people for weed than for any other controlled substance. According to the DOJ, the DEA arrested 8,215 people for violating federal cannabis prohibition laws in 2010, about the same number of people busted for powder cocaine. That same year, the feds made fewer than 6,000 arrests for meth and even fewer arrests for heroin and all other opioids combined.
But as states began to legalize adult-use weed over the course of the decade, marijuana arrests began to decline significantly. Every year from 2010 to 2020, the DEA arrested around 11% fewer people for weed. By 2020, the total number of pot busts fell to 2,576, the lowest number recorded in recent history.
Cannabis arrests actually started to increase again in 2018, when the feds started collaborating with California law enforcement to raid illegal weed farms. In 2018 alone, the DEA helped the Golden State raid 889 unlicensed grow-ops and destroy over 1.8 million black market pot plants. But even with this brief uptick in enforcement, the total number of cannabis arrests still declined by 68.6% from 2010 to 2020.
As weed arrests have been declining, arrests for meth, opioids, and other addictive drugs have been growing. In 2012, the DEA started arresting more people for meth than for weed, and meth arrests have steadily increased by around 5% every year. In 2020, meth accounted for a third of the 26,696 drug arrests made by the DEA that year.
Arrest rates for powder cocaine have also dropped by around 6% per year over the past decade, but even so, the DEA still arrested 4,474 people for coke last year. Heroin busts are also on the decline after peaking around 2015, but arrests for other opioids, including fentanyl, have been increasing by about 6% a year. The DEA also arrested more people in 2020 for “other nonopioids,” including hallucinogens and prescription depressants, than they did for weed.
The total number of federal arrests for all crimes declined by nearly 42% from 2019 to 2020, largely due to the pandemic. The DEA's drug arrests only dropped by 3% during that same time, though, and drug busts accounted for 15.7% of all federal arrests made in 2020. This made drug offenses the third-highest federal arrest category that year, only superseded by immigration offenses and supervision violations.
The current DOJ report only covers the previous decade, but more recent statistics show that these trends are continuing into the 2020s. Last month, the US Sentencing Commission reported that fewer than 1,000 people were charged with violating federal cannabis laws in 2021, the first time that figure has dropped to three digits since the War on Drugs began. A decade before that, nearly 7,000 people were charged with weed-related crimes.