Over the past several years, many Americans have become increasingly vocal in their opposition to harsh anti-marijuana laws. But an analysis of data on national pot use and arrests published Tuesday shows there's been a significant decline in the enforcement of those laws. In effect, police have become less and less focused on busting people for smoking or possessing pot, despite statistics that suggest Americans are using the drug more frequently.
In his report for the commentary site SameFacts, Stanford psychiatry professor Keith Humphreys examined arrests for marijuana possession between 2007 and 2012, as reported in the FBI Uniform Crime Reports, and data on pot use among Americans over the same period, pulled from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. He found that while Americans reported using marijuana more frequently over that five-year period, with a nearly 50 percent increase in aggregate days of use, arrests for possession fell 15 percent overall.
To be sure, 658,231 Americans were still arrested in 2012 for possession alone, and each arrest came at a significant cost to the individual and the broader criminal justice system. But as Humphreys notes, this is an extremely low rate of enforcement, considering there were around 3 billion aggregate days of marijuana use among Americans that year.
Tom Angell, chairman of the Marijuana Majority, a pot policy group, said that the report is a positive sign that only underscores the need for further reforms.
"For a long time, we've been saying that the prohibition strategy of arresting as many people as possible can never lead to a significant reduction in marijuana use," Angell told HuffPost. "This data analysis appears to indicate that police departments and the policymakers that set their priorities and budgets are starting to come to the same conclusion. It just doesn't make sense to keep spending so much money and police time on busting people for marijuana.
"But merely reducing the rate at which people are arrested, while a step in the right direction, doesn't solve many of the problems of prohibition, such as black market profits going to cartels and gangs," he added. "Only legalizing and regulating marijuana, like Colorado and Washington have done and as more states are likely to do this year, can do that."
The decrease in enforcement comes after a decades-long escalation of the war on drugs, which saw marijuana arrests nearly double between 1980 and 2007.
In the years since, there's been a clear push in a number of states to back away from the federal policy of marijuana prohibition. Medical marijuana is now legal in twenty states and Washington, D.C., and some states have taken even bolder steps.
But while local law enforcement may have relaxed its attitude toward petty pot use -- an approach that President Barack Obama had promised to take from the beginning of his presidency -- federal authorities have also drawn nationwide attention for cracking down on legal marijuana dispensaries, growers and distributors.
All told, the data suggest that the war on weed may have actually started to fade over the past five years, an appropriate trend considering national and state polling that has shown Americans increasingly supportive of pot policies that don't focus on enforcement. Despite these signs, very few people appear to have noticed the shift. This could be due to high-profile federal moves against marijuana, possession arrest totals that seem high when other data isn't taken into account, or the fact that national police groups have continued to announce their support for an increasingly militarized drug war. While the rhetoric of such groups hasn't changed, it appears that their broader priorities as law enforcement officials may have.