Weed Is Legal Almost Everywhere, but Law Enforcement Continues to Crack Down

Most of the 5,000 marijuana-related arrests from last year probably won't end in a prison sentence. Some won't even lead to a conviction.

This story originally appeared on The Fresh Toast

Although marijuana is legal in more than half the United States for medicinal and recreational use, that hasn’t stopped gung-ho federal drug agents from cracking down on it. The latest report from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) finds that its cannabis eradication team was busy last year, seizing millions of cannabis plants and dragging thousands of offenders to jail.

The DEA’s annual Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program Statistical Report shows the agency, together with state and local police departments, seized more than 4.5 million cannabis plants last year (about a half-million more than in 2019) while arresting 5,000 people for various pot-related offenses.

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“In 2020, the DEA continued its nationwide cannabis eradication efforts, providing resources to support the 127 state and local law enforcement agencies that actively participate in the program,” the agency declared. “This assistance allows the enhancement of already aggressive eradication enforcement activities throughout the nation.”

But weed is mostly legal, so what gives?

There’s no doubt that many of the people busted last year on federal marijuana charges were breaking the law. Cannabis remains a Schedule I dangerous drug in the eyes of our old Uncle Sam, despite some states legalizing it.

It’s no secret that cannabis growers, even those in legal states, often bend the rules (or disregard them altogether) to feed the black market. Just look at the Emerald Triangle, a section of Northern California forestry across Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties. Many weed farmers in those parts still aren’t with the legal sector — and they don’t plan on joining it anytime soon. With more states going legal, that could help explain the influx in busts last year. There are more cannabis plants being grown everywhere, legal, and otherwise.

DEA agents aren’t just sitting around, updating their resumes, and thinking about what they’re going to do when marijuana finally goes legal nationwide. No, agents will keep busting pot offenders that stand outside the law until the federal government legalizes and strips them of their funding.

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Should the average pot consumer worry?

For the most part, law-abiding cannabis users are safe from the DEA. Still, cannabis advocacy groups warn that marijuana is still far from off-limits when it comes to the role of federal law enforcement.

“While marijuana enforcement is arguably not the same priority that it once was for the DEA — likely because of changes in state policies and in federal budgetary guidelines — this does not mean that the agency is content to look the other way at violations of federal marijuana law,” NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano said in a statement.

“There are still several thousands of Americans arrested for federal marijuana violations each year — even at a time when some seven in ten Americans believe that the plant ought to be legal for adults to use and possess.”

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Most of the 5,000 marijuana-related arrests from last year probably won’t end in a prison sentence. Some won’t even lead to a conviction. Federal prosecutions for marijuana trafficking have been on the decline for years.

report from the U.S. Sentencing Commission finds that federal prosecutions for weed-related offenses have been drying up since around 2012. Marijuana isn’t as big of a deal to prosecutors anymore. No, they are focused on putting away drug dealers who sling the hard stuff; most of their efforts are spent prosecuting federal methamphetamine cases. For those pot-offenders who go to jail, the report finds that most are sentenced to an average of 18 months. Again, these are people convicted of marijuana trafficking, not simple possession.