A new federal report revealed some good news: for the first time in 4 years, cannabis arrests in the United States started declining.
It was surprising to see that from 2016 onwards, the years when more states began legalizing cannabis, the marijuana-related arrests online continued to spike. But based on the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program, in 2019 there were 545,601 cannabis arrests, down from 663,367 in 2018 and 659,700 the previous year. Around a decade ago, cannabis arrests reached a shocking peak at 800,000.
Sure, it’s good news, but the sheer number of cannabis arrests is STILL high no matter how you look at it. There are already 33 states that allow cannabis to be consumed for medical purposes, while 11 allow the use of recreational cannabis. The stigma surrounding the once-controversial drug has significantly gone down, and a majority of Americans now support legalization of the drug. In fact, during the pandemic, cannabis was considered an essential service.
But support from the public as well as the medical sector doesn’t change the fact that the federal government still sees cannabis as illegal. People who use it can still be subject to crime enforcement.
“Police across America make a marijuana-related arrest every 58 seconds,” said Erik Altieri, NORML Executive Director, in a statement. “At a time when the overwhelming majority of Americans want cannabis to be legal and regulated, it is an outrage that many police departments across the country continue to waste tax dollars and limited law enforcement resources on arresting otherwise law-abiding citizens for simple marijuana possession.”
“A decline in cannabis related arrests is better than seeing an increase for a fourth year in a row, but the amount of these arrests is still abhorrent,” says Marijuana Policy Project Executive Director Steve Hawkins, to Marijuana Moment. “There is no reason to continue punishing adults for consuming a substance that is less harmful than alcohol. Arresting adult cannabis consumers has a dramatically disproportionate impact on communities of color, is a massive waste of law enforcement officials’ time and resources, and does nothing to improve public health or safety.”
When you look at the data, it reveals that the arrest rate for cannabis related crimes is 9% more than those who were arrested for violent crimes, in the same year! If that isn’t shocking enough, how about the fact that 92% of the arrests were for mere possession of the drug – and not even people who were growing or selling it?! If you compute the figures and remove all those cases that were arrests for unregulated cannabis trade, and only focus on possession, the figures are still much higher than those who were convicted for violent crimes.
Racial Disparity Still Present
Another concerning aspect of the arrests is that a majority of Blacks and Hispanics are disproportionately affected; this has been the same issue for several years now. The California Department of Justice released an annual report of crime rates in what is the most populous state in the country, where there were 1,181 felony arrests due to cannabis in 2019.
Though California saw a 27% drop in cannabis arrests, Hispanics made up 42% of them, with Blacks following at 22%. Meanwhile, whites made up 21% of them, and other groups accounted for the rest of it.
According to Ellen Komp, NORML’s deputy director for California, these figures reflect the challenges that the Hispanics and Blacks have encountered as they try to enter the legal cannabis market. The percentage of these arrests “is troubling, especially now that we’ve legalized it,” said Komp. “It’s legal if you have the venture capital to open up on Main Street.”
The same disturbing disparities are also observed in Washington DC, 5 years after they’ve legalized cannabis. As of September this year, DC has slashed cannabis arrests by over half yet Blacks still make up almost 90% of the arrests, based on a Washington Post study. An article from the Washington Post cites defense attorneys who claim that the local cops still zero in on the low income and mostly poor Black neighborhoods in town, and this is where most officers are deployed.
“They can use the odor of burning marijuana or street sales to pat people down for weapons or check for outstanding warrants,” explains defense lawyer Paul Zukerberg to the Washington Post. “They try to turn people into involuntary informants or state witnesses.” Given that they are already focusing on poorer Black people, it’s bothersome that sure, punishments may be small but they still require the convicted to shell out money they don’t have, on court visits and other matters to settle the issue. “It can hurt people’s chance of getting employment and passing background checks while the case is still pending,” Zukerberg said. “And a case can be pending for weeks, months and years.”
Experts predict that the legal cannabis industry in the United States can bring in more than $16 billion in sales this year, and they are responsible for generating around 340,000 jobs. It’s an essential, multi-billion dollar, legal industry yet why are thousands of people across the country still suffering for it?
The decline reflects a mere glimmer of hope that we will fully eradicate unlawful cannabis arrests one day, but there are still major challenges that need to be tackled – especially the disproportionate arresting of racial minorities. These matters will never be resolved until cannabis is federally legal, and every state passes a decriminalization law. Or at the very least, the United States should finally have a mercy clause, or retroactive ameliorative relief which would greatly help reduce the punishment for a crime.
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