Arresting Developments: Marijuana Arrests on the Rise in 17 States

Despite marijuana's legalization in Colorado and Washington, forthcoming ballot measures in Alaska, Oregon, and Washington, D.C., and rising support in the polls, marijuana's prohibition still remains a powerful force in much of the country.
09/26/2014 05:35 pm ET Updated Nov 26, 2014

Despite marijuana's legalization in Colorado and Washington, forthcoming ballot measures in Alaska, Oregon, and Washington, D.C., and rising support in the polls, marijuana's prohibition still remains a powerful force in much of the country.

Aside from consideration of legalization, many states have indeed begun to deemphasize arrests for marijuana possession through passage of reform measures such as decriminalization or by decreasing arrest rates. But regional and long-term trends tell a different story.

In 1992 there were 342,314 arrests for marijuana offenses in the United States according to the federal Uniform Crime Reporting Program, producing an arrest rate of 133.45 per 100,000 population. In 2012 we had 749,825 arrests nationally, with an arrest rate of 238.86. During this 20 year period the National Survey on Drug Use and Health estimates that the number of annual marijuana users increased from 17.4 million in 1992 to 31.9 million in 2012.

The 749,825 arrests in 2012 are part of a downward trend over the last few years from the record high of 872,720 arrests in 2007. Nonetheless marijuana arrests remain at historically high levels. Furthermore, as the usage data above demonstrates, we have doubled marijuana arrests in the United States over the last two decades without any reduction in marijuana use. Indeed, marijuana use has increased considerably.

While marijuana arrests have been decreasing in many states, in two-thirds of the states actually, in 17 states marijuana arrest rates have been increasing by at least an average of 1% annually from 2008 to 2012. Of these 17 jurisdictions, 12 had an annual increase greater than 2% and 8 greater than 3% per year. Collectively they account for 28.8% of the population of the United States and 44.6% of the arrests for marijuana offenses.

These states and their annual average increases are South Carolina (11.6%), Washington, DC* (7.7%) South Dakota (7.7%), North Dakota (5.5%), Utah (4.5%), Illinois* (4.3%), Montana (3.5%), Idaho (3.2%), Virginia (2.6%), New York (2.4%), New Jersey (2,4%), Oregon (2.1%), Tennessee (1.7%), Wisconsin (1.2%), Vermont (1%), Michigan (1%), and West Virginia (1%). (*The Washington, DC and Illinois data are for the period 2008 to 2011.)

These and other findings are published in my recent report: Marijuana in the States 2012, which provides data on marijuana arrests and related usage trends.

In addition to comparing arrest trends and usage trends it is interesting to examine marijuana arrests in the relation to the number of marijuana users per state. Only 2.8% of marijuana users were arrested in 2010/2011. The arrest percentage of all users varied from 1% or less in Hawaii, Montana, Vermont, and Massachusetts to 5% or more in Wyoming, Nebraska, Maryland, New York, and Louisiana. For comparison, consider the national clearance rates, the number of reported crimes "cleared" by an arrest, for the following offenses as reported in the FBI's annual report on Crime in the United States: murder (62.5%), rape (40.1%), robbery (28.1%), aggravated assault (55.8%), burglary (12.7%) larceny-theft (22%), motor vehicle theft (11.9%), and arson (20.4%). The relatively small percentage of marijuana users actually arrested helps to explain why marijuana's illegality has failed to reduce the number of users.

Marijuana arrests do not deter marijuana use. The data on arrests and use demonstrate do not support an assertion that arresting people for marijuana offenses helps to control marijuana use. There is no control. They may send a message that marijuana is not approved by society, a benefit advanced by those who embrace the use of the criminal code as a teaching resources defended by various social learning theories. But theories should be subject to falsification. In other words, they need to produce and explain results. The data on marijuana use and marijuana arrests, in fact, indicate the results of marijuana arrests are the opposite of what was intended. In science, that's when the theory gets rejected. Given the trend of increasing public support for marijuana's legalization, this is also the outcome with respect to marijuana arrests as a public policy.

Why, then, are marijuana arrests on the increase in 17 states and at historically high levels in the rest of the country? Many law enforcement officers continue to justify marijuana arrests, in part based on their own experiences with marijuana users. But as the data indicates, they only have experience with a very small percentage of marijuana users. There are, after all, important issues that require greater attention on the part of state and local police. When it comes to the issue of marijuana arrests, especially in light of the data on arrests and use, the issue of law enforcement's support for continuing and increasing marijuana arrests warrants scrutiny. With all due respect, don't police have anything better to do with their time and resources?

Jon Gettman is an Assistant Professor in Criminal Justice at Shenandoah University. His recent report "Marijuana in the States 2012" can be found at http://www.regulatingcannabis.com/.