Drug arrests are increasing in the United States, new FBI data shows.
The numbers, released on Monday, show that there were 1,572,579 drug arrests in the U.S. in 2016.
That’s an average of one drug arrest every 20 seconds.
The total number is up roughly 5.6% from the 1,488,707 arrests for drug crimes in the country in 2015.
The increasing drug bust rate stands in contrast to the public-health-focused rhetoric from Obama administration drug officials who consistently tried to move away from “war on drugs” terminology.
“Locking people up for minor drug offenses, and especially people with substance-use disorders, is not the answer,” Michael Botticelli, then Obama’s White House Office of National Drug Control Policy director, said in a 2015 interview. “It’s cruel. It’s costly. And it doesn’t make the public any safer.”
In a PBS appearance last year, Botticelli, commonly referred to as the drug czar, called treating substance misuse as a crime “inhumane” and said, “we can’t arrest our way out of the problem.”
Similarly, he told 60 Minutes: “We can’t arrest and incarcerate addiction out of people. Not only do I think it’s really inhumane, but it’s ineffective and it cost us billions upon billions of dollars to keep doing this.”
But despite its chief drug policy official sounding a bit like a decriminalization activist in interviews, the Obama administration in its last year in office oversaw a sharp rise in drug arrests.
And while the vast majority of drug arrests are made by local and state police, not DEA or FBI agents, the federal government does support those enforcement activities with grant programs that in some cases incentivize more and more drug arrests.
The Obama Justice Department did issue directives discouraging the use of harsh mandatory minimum sentences in many drug cases and allowing states to generally implement their own marijuana legalization laws without federal interference. And in the waning days of his administration the president said that marijuana should be treated “as a public-health issue, the same way we do with cigarettes or alcohol.”
It is also worth noting that drug arrests were down over the course of the entire Obama administration from the 1,702,537 that occurred in 2008, the year before he took office.
But the administration consistently officially opposed marijuana legalization, and President Obama and his drug policy officials never endorsed decriminalizing substance use or policies that would end low-level arrests.
Under the Trump administration, current anti-marijuana U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has rescinded the Obama-era guidance on mandatory minimums and has said he is currently reviewing the old memo on state cannabis laws.
Unlike in years past, FBI didn’t immediately make available data breaking down overall drug arrests into separate categories for marijuana and other substances.
NOTE: After this story was originally published I subsequently obtained the cannabis-specific data and analyzed it in a separate post.