According to multiple polls, around 70% of Americans support the legalization of marijuana for adult use. And, marijuana is legal, at least for medical use, in the majority of U.S. states – and the total number of states where it is legal keeps growing. Currently, legalization advocates are making their case before the Wisconsin legislature.
It seems clear that Americans’ views about marijuana have changed dramatically since before 2012, when Washington state and Colorado first legalized weed. With that being the case, you might expect that arrests for mere possession of marijuana would have dropped off nationwide.
That isn’t happening. While possession of a small amount of marijuana is now completely legal in 18 states and Washington, D.C., the other states and the federal government seem to have stepped up enforcement of marijuana possession.
In fact, according to a 2020 report by the ACLU, more people are arrested in the U.S. for marijuana than any other drug. But surely, those people are being arrested for underage possession or for more serious crimes like distribution or trafficking, right?
No. Almost 90% of marijuana arrests are still for adult possession. In most states, possession is only charged when the person has less than three ounces of marijuana. If they have more, they are typically charged with possession with intent to distribute. In other words, we’re talking about 90% of all marijuana arrests involving people with very small amounts of weed.
How does that compare with all drug arrests? According to the ACLU report, about 39 of every 100 drug arrests in the U.S. are for mere possession of marijuana. That’s still an improvement from the prior decade, when the arrest rate for marijuana was even more shocking.
Moreover, the ACLU has repeatedly found massive racial disparities in these arrests, with Black and Latino people being arrested at much higher rates than white people, even though people of all races use marijuana at approximately the same rate.
Are people still being charged with possession as a federal offense? Yes. The number of possession-only federal convictions is nominal, but not zero.
Weed possession arrests are still the No. 1 way for people to come into contact with law enforcement
We may think we’ve made progress, and we have. Unfortunately, mere possession of weed by an adult is still an extremely common first offense. People are being hassled, arrested, charged and convicted of crimes with serious penalties, all because they smoke a drug that a large majority of Americans think should be legal.
People’s lives are being ruined. It appears that this is occurring not because they use weed, but by law enforcement related to weed. Isn’t it time for the police to prioritize other crimes?