Drug offenses remained the single most common cause of arrest in 2012, mostly for offenses involving mere possession, according to newly released FBI estimates. Of the 12.2 million estimated arrests 1.55 million were for “drug abuse violations.” Some 82 percent of those were for possession offenses, and 42.4 percent for marijuana possession. That is the equivalent of a drug arrest every 20 seconds, and a marijuana arrest every 42 seconds, according to calculations by Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group of law enforcement officials who support the regulated legalization of drugs.
“These numbers represent a tremendous loss of human potential,” said LEAP Executive Director Neill Franklin, who was a police officer for 34 years. Each one of those arrests is the story of someone who may suffer a variety of adverse effects from their interaction with the justice system.” Among those effects are ineligibility for federal student loans, which applies only to convictions for drug offenses, or involuntary civil commitment for a sexual offense.
“Commit a murder or a robbery and the government will still give you a student loan,” Franklin said. “Get convicted for smoking a joint and you’re likely to lose it. This is supposed to help people get over their drug habit?”
Emphasis on drug abuse arrests also detracts from resources for solving other violent crimes. Over the past half century, the rate of unsolved homicides has skyrocketed. And a recent study by the Drug Policy Alliance found that the New York Police Department spent 1 million hours over the last decade just on marijuana arrests. An FBI chart accompanying last year’s annual crime statistics tracks the increase in marijuana arrests, as violent crime arrests decreased:
Murders and other complex crimes are difficult to solve. But when law enforcement officers face arrest quotas, or are feeling pressure to demonstrate the fruits of their efforts, drug possession arrests provide an easy route to success. In New York, for example, the aggressive NYPD stop-and-frisk program has been touted as a way to net illegal guns. But among the small fraction of stopped New Yorkers who are arrested for anything at all, marijuana is the number one offense. This is so even though marijuana possession is decriminalized in New York, except when it is in public view. New York police officers reportedly ask subjects to take marijuana out of their pockets in the course of a frisk, and then arrest them for marijuana in public view.
Police also stand to profit from seizing money and assets they believe are associated with drug crimes. And once arrested, drug defendants face stiff mandatory minimum sentences, unless they take a plea deal, or barter with law enforcement by serving as a snitch or ensnaring other drug defendants. As a consequence, drug offenders fill our jails at enormous taxpayer expense.
While arrests for all drug offenses went up since 2011, marijuana arrests have gone down slightly, likely because of a barrage of state reforms. But these arrest still fall disproportionately on minorities. A recent American Civil Liberties Union report found that blacks were four times as likely as whites to be arrested for marijuana, despite similar rates of marijuana use.