Police Arrested More People for Marijuana Last Year Than All Violent Crime Combined

FBI data reveals more people are arrested for cannabis possession than all violent crimes combined. In a nation where a mere interaction with police can be deadly, it is more crucial than ever to legalize — not decriminalize. 

By Roland T. Flackfizer

Photo by Dimitri Bong

Senator Kamala Harris made a telling statement at the Vice Presidential debates earlier this week. During the debate, she made an unsolicited commitment to decriminalize marijuana : “We will decriminalize marijuana and we will expunge the records of those who have been convicted of marijuana,” she said. Well, that is a great start for a former prosecutor but far too little too late. Simply said, decriminalization will still include police intervention for those carrying or smoking cannabis. Under decriminalization, public possession could be a ticket which leads users potentially getting caught up in the court system. Limiting the amount of interactions with police is key to addressing police brutality and lethal force. Recent FBI data has made it clear, law enforcement spends more time than just about anything on the policing of a relatively harmless plant: cannabis.

The FBI has recently released their Uniform Crime Report and revealed more people were arrested for cannabis last year than for all violent crimes put together. 

The data shows that law enforcement arrested 545,602 people for ‘cannabis related crimes in 2019.’ For perspective, the arrest rate for cannabis is 9% higher than the 495,871 arrested for engaging in violent crimes. To be clear, these are by and large not dealers being arrested but everyday consumers of the plant. The overwhelming majority of those arrested, a whopping 92%, were arrested for possession. Even if you backed out the 40k-ish people arrested for trafficking, the half a million cannabis possession arrests still exceed violent crime arrests.

There is some good news though. Arrests for cannabis dropped by 18% in 2019 versus the previous year. This is widely attributed to legal changes in Texas. The state has gone through a bevvy of legal proceedings regarding its legalization of hemp for industrial use and commercial use provided the plant matter contains less than 0.3% of THC, the now-legal limit to distinguish between hemp and marijuana.

Nonetheless, any loosening of cannabis laws has not yet reached communities of color in states where the plant remains illegal.  A 2018 report from the ACLU found that Black people were 3.6 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than White people. This contrast is stark particularly when considering that both groups use cannabis at roughly the same rates. Some states, such as Montana and Kentucky, demonstrated even worse racial disparity than others. Black people are 9.6% more likely to be arrested for cannabis. 

As of date, 33 states permit some variant of legal and/or medical cannabis use and 11 have legalized adult recreational use. Two thirds of Americans now support national legalization. Despite this, neither major party candidate for President of the United States supports full legalization.

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