In 2016, U.S. law enforcement nationwide arrested about 587,700 people for possession of marijuana, and about 1.5 million people for drug offenses more broadly.
That means, on average, one person is arrested for marijuana possession every minute in America, and one person is arrested for some sort of drug offense every 20 seconds. In the time it’s taken you to read this paragraph from start to finish — boom, there’s another drug arrest.
The statistics come from the FBI’s 2016 national crime database, released Monday and reported by The Washington Post in the context of the rest of the FBI’s crime stats, they’re even more appalling.
“More people were arrested for marijuana possession than for all crimes the FBI classifies as violent,” Christopher Ingraham estimated at the Post last year.
All violent crimes. That’s a big category. It includes murder, rape, assault, robbery and more. And if overall drug arrests are roughly triple the arrests for marijuana possession alone, that means for every one violent crime arrest in 2016, law enforcement arrested three people for drug offenses.
That’s absurd on so many levels. It means our government is devoting more resources to a demonstrably futile attempt to regulate what people put in their bodies than to dealing with actual violent crime. America’s drug war is costly, counterproductive and inhumane, yet that is what is being prioritized by law enforcement, across the board.
This is not what the American public wants. More than six in 10 Americans support legalizing recreational pot use and that figure has trended steadily upwards in recent decades. It will continue to do so for years to come, as Millennials are the most pro-legalization generation among American adults — and we’re also the youngest. It’s not hard to see where things are headed.
On the topic of drug use more broadly, about seven in 10 Americans now say it “should be treated as an addiction and mental health problem rather than a criminal offense.” In other words: Arrests are not helpful. Criminalizing drug use and arresting users on this mass scale doesn’t do anyone any good. It breaks up families and makes recovery from drug abuse less likely.
It’s also a terrible and arguably dangerous misuse of police efforts. Economists talk about “opportunity cost,” the idea that if you choose one option among mutually exclusive alternatives, you have to forego the other options.
For example, if I choose to go to dinner at an Italian restaurant, I can’t choose to eat at a Mexican or Chinese restaurant at the same time. Choosing one place for dinner means I can’t simultaneously choose the other places.
Here’s a more serious example of opportunity cost: Police have a limited time and resources. So when they are tasked with hunting down people whose sole offense is possessing marijuana or other drugs, you know what they’re not doing? Solving violent crimes like murder and rape.
If there are three times as many drug arrests as violent crime arrests, is that a good use of police time? Do we really want law enforcement spending more time on potheads than, you know, people who are actually hurting other people?
I’d say the answer is pretty obvious. If only our government could see it, too.