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Four states had legalized recreational marijuana use in 2015, another 25 have comprehensive public medical marijuana and cannabis programs, and quite a few cities decided not to prosecute possession of small amounts of pot. So you might expect that with this rise in legalization and decriminalization there would be a corresponding drop in marijuana arrests. Instead, as Human Rights Watch reports, marijuana arrests outpaced those for violent crime in 2015.
So why are pot arrests up, even though it's more legal than ever? And what effects are these arrests having on defendants and the criminal justice system?
Violent vs. Non-Violent Crime
According to the report, the overall crime rate has declined over the last 20 years, and there has been a corresponding drop in violent crime arrests from 1995 to 2015. But that decline has not been mirrored in drug possession arrests, which have increased 13 percent. Overall, law enforcement agencies made 574,641 arrests last year for small quantities of pot (defined as an amount intended for personal use). Over the same period, 505,681 people were arrested for all violent crimes like murder, rape, and serious assaults.
Beyond just marijuana, a person is arrested every 25 seconds for possession of drugs for personal use, leading to at least 137,000 people incarcerated on drug arrests every day. The report goes on:
More than one of every nine arrests by state law enforcement is for drug possession, amounting to more than 1.25 million arrests each year. And despite officials' claims that drug laws are meant to curb drug sales, four times as many people are arrested for possessing drugs as are arrested for selling them.
Impact of Pot Arrests
The high rate of minor drug arrests puts a strain on court and jail systems, to say nothing about the impact of conviction, incarceration, fines, court fees, and probation and parole have on those arrested. These penalties appear even more disproportionate when compared to states that don't criminalize small amounts of pot possession.
And marijuana arrests have a disparate impact on poor, black people as well. Although black and white and black people use marijuana at similar rates, the study found, adult African-Americans are more than four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession as white adults. At the same time, black defendants are also less likely to be able pay court-imposed fines and fees, resulting in more and longer jail and prison sentences.
Human Rights Watch, who authored the report, and the American Civil Liberties Union are asking for "states and the federal government to decriminalize the use and possession for personal use of all drugs and to focus instead on prevention and harm reduction." Short of that, the report calls on "officials to take strong measures to minimize and mitigate the harmful consequences of existing laws and policies." We may found out next month whether more states heed the call on marijuana, at least.