Sky High Marijuana Numbers

Posted on April 20, 2012 by


In the last several years, we’ve seen many states pass medical marijuana legislation, the growth of support for legalizing marijuana, and a whole lotta money wasted on marijuana arrests.  The following graphs are created from 2010 FBI UCR arrest data (the most recent available), except where noted.

There were an estimated 13.1 million arrests in the United States in 2010. Of these, 4% were for violent crimes, 13% for  property crimes, 12% for drugs (of which half were for marijuana), and 19% for alcohol-related crimes.  The rest fell into that vast abyss known as “other” which can be explored further here.

What’s the most interesting figure on this pie chart? I think it’s the whopping 19% of alcohol-related arrests. Given that alcohol is a legal substance, though controlled by age, it’s pretty clear that we have a big problem with booze.

So how do alcohol and marijuana stack up against one another? Considering that anyone can be arrested for possessing weed, while only those under 18 can be arrested for possessing alcohol, it’s pretty amazing to look at the difference in arrest numbers for these two substances. Do you suppose that these numbers have anything to do with the fact that alcohol can be a dangerous substance? And that marijuana is generally not? Maybe?

OK, how about the numbers for possession versus sales and manufacturing?

If we believe in a harm reduction approach to drug policy — and trust me, all the sane people do — then we should have little in the way of arrests for possession and big numbers for sales and manufacturing.

How do the data look? Not good. Seems like our ratios suggest that the War on Drugs is largely a War on Users Not Dealers. Drat.

Let’s take a look at some of the numbers on arrests for sale and manufacturing. Hopefully, arrest data will show that we are concentrating our efforts on the most dangerous drugs.

Of arrests for selling and manufacturing drugs, 35% of arrests were for marijuana, which has no known toxicity level. Cocaine, heroin, and all of their derivatives account for 34%. I guess I’m happy that if you add that to the 21% of arrests for other “dangerous” drugs, it looks like about half of drug arrests for sale and manufacturing are based on the substances that really matter. Assuming, of course, that you trust this label of “dangerous” as accurate. I only mention it because some people think that American drug policy has a whacked out notion of what’s dangerous. Just sayin’.

So how do we measure up when you look at arrests for possession? Are we reducing harm by focusing on the most harmful substances? Oh, heck. Look at that. About half of the arrests are for marijuana, mary jane, weed, dope, grass, wacky tobacky, or whatever else you want to call it.

You know, it occurs to me that arrests cost money. They use up resources like police officer time, jail space, funding for indigent defense, court time… man, that’s a lot.

Since we know that marijuana is relatively safe, I sure hope we’re not spending too much time on marijuana arrests at the expense of other crimes. When I think of a crime problem that surely needs to see increased arrest rates, sexual assault is the first thing that comes to mind. Let’s take FBI UCR arrest numbers and compare them with NCVS victimization numbers. Sure, they are from different national-level data sources, but I think it’s fair to use them both, especially in light of the fact that so many sexual assaults go unreported to law enforcement.

When I look at this graph, I get angry. I’m thrilled that the 2010 NCVS sexual assault numbers are down, but 188,380 is still a huge number when you think about the seriousness of the crime. Yet, knowing as we do that many of these assaults are carried out by a small number of repeat rapists who should be stopped as quickly as possible, it looks like law enforcement is putting way more energy into marijuana arrests.

It’s time to get our priorities in order.