Twenty-nine states have now legalized marijuana in some form, including seven that have passed laws legalizing recreational adult use, and a host of recent polls show that about 60 percent of Americans favor just legalizing the plant and moving on. All that said, you'd be forgiven for doing a double take when looking at the 2016 crime statistics the FBI released Monday.
According to the bureau's numbers, 5 percent of the nation's arrests last year were for marijuana possession — that's more people than were arrested for murder, rape, aggravated assault and robbery combined. (To be fair, there are a lot more people in the United States who hold a little weed from time to time than commit violent crime, thankfully.) But that's still more than 653,000 people arrested for marijuana-related offenses in 2016, according to the Washington Post, which crunched the numbers and found that, on average, someone was arrested for a cannabis related charge every 48 seconds last year. (If that average holds strong in 2017, about two people will have been arrested by the time you finish reading this column.)
And while popular sentiment seems to be trending in the opposite direction, that's an increase of about 1.5 percent from 2015, or more than 10,000 additional lives ensnared by cannabis prohibition. This news should be particularly troubling among minorities, as studies have shown blacks to be between three to four times more likely to be arrested for possession than their white counterparts, despite similar usage rates.
All together, marijuana arrests made up 41.5 percent of all drug arrests last year. (Arrests for "heroin, cocaine and their derivatives," meanwhile, accounted for about 25 percent of the total.)
It should be noted that these numbers are from 2016, the last year of the Obama administration, before President Trump and his marijuana-is-only-slightly-less-awful-than-heroin Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III took office.
The marijuana arrest rates are troubling, to be sure, but let's back up a moment. Last year, 1.5 million people were arrested on drug charges in the United States — that's more than the population of 12 states. Meanwhile, in 2016, the U.S. saw drug overdoses kill roughly 64,000 people, an average of about 175 a day, according to the Centers for Disease Control, including almost 50,000 from opioids. All told, people in the United States are overdosing at rates higher than they died from car crashes, gun violence or AIDS in their deadliest years, and that's not even including the 88,000 or so Americans who die annually from alcohol-related causes, according to the National Institute of Health.
Meanwhile, the Drug Policy Alliance estimates we spend about $51 billion annually on drug-related arrests and incarcerations. It's high time we asked what return we're getting on that investment. We certainly have many more police officers — 750,000 in 2012, the last year data is available from the Bureau of Justice, which was a 24 percent increase from two decades earlier. And the increase makes sense, as we have criminalized a large swath of the population and increasingly ask our officers to be social workers and counselors when they're not protecting us from violent criminals.
But there has to be a better way and, plainly, the 175 daily national overdoses — not to mention the scores of hopelessly addicted people and spent needles we see everywhere in Humboldt County — seem a poor return on that $51 billion.
It's a small step, but maybe as a start we can take however much money we as a nation spent arresting, jailing and prosecuting those 600,000-plus marijuana offenders last year and put it toward treatment. In a rational world, it seems the very least we can do.
Thadeus Greenson is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.