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How Many Marijuana-Related Arrests Occur Each Year?

The answer may surprise you.

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Appearing recently on CNN, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy was asked about a U.S. Senate proposal to decriminalize cannabis nationwide.

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“When it comes to decriminalization, I don't think that there is value to individuals or to society to lock people up for marijuana use. I don't think that serves anybody well,” Murthy said.

That position is also supported by President Joe Biden (although not legalization). 

But words are cheap. Despite 18 states now making cannabis legal for adult use—and a majority of states having legalized medical marijuana— police still arrest more than half a million people each year in the U.S. for possessing cannabis.

Related: The Increase in Dispensary Crime Just Reaffirms the Need for Cannabis Banking

Marijuana arrests make up a huge portion of drug arrests

Even as people buy weed from legal retailers across the country, police arrest people for marijuana possession in larger numbers than they do those charged with a violent crime.

Numbers from the FBI Uniform Crime Report show that in 2019, the latest year available, police across the country made 545,602 arrests for marijuana-related offenses. Of those, 92 percent - or 500,395 arrests - were for possession offenses only. 

In contrast, a total of 495,871 were arrested for violent crimes. In a news release about the FBI data, NORML Executive Director Erik Altieri noted that a marijuana possession arrest is made every 58 seconds in the U.S.

He said: “At a time when the overwhelming majority of Americans want cannabis to be legal and regulated, it is an outrage that many police departments across the country continue to waste tax dollars and limited law enforcement resources on arresting otherwise law-abiding citizens for simple marijuana possession.”

Related: All Those Fears About Marijuana Legalization Never Materialized

You can’t blame the South 

Much is made, especially in politics, over the divide on attitudes toward marijuana between The South and the rest of the country. However, in the area of marijuana-related arrests, the South actually led the way in reducing arrests.

That’s primarily because Texas significantly reduced the number of marijuana arrests in 2019, with 50,000 fewer arrests than in 2018, according to NORML.

According to a regional breakdown from the FBI, police in the Northeast made the most marijuana possession arrests, with 48.2 percent of all drug-related arrests involving marijuana possession.

That’s far above the rates for the other regions: Midwest (40.4 percent), South (39.4 percent) and West (11.3 percent). 

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