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Trump Administration Makes It Harder To Track Marijuana Arrests (But We Did It Anyway)



As reported earlier, new FBI data reveals that drug arrests increased in the United States last year. But due to a change in how the annual law enforcement numbers are publicized, it is now harder to determine how many people were busted for marijuana or other drugs specifically.

Nonetheless, after a bit of outreach and some number crunching I was able to determine that marijuana arrests are on the rise in the U.S., even as more states legalize the drug.

The annual publication, based on data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report (UCR), has in years past contained a convenient table that shows the percentage of drug arrests accounted for by marijuana possession or heroin or cocaine sales and manufacturing, for example:

FBI’s drug arrest breakdowns for 2015.

But the new data, released on Monday, contains no such helpful breakdown.

The removal of the table is part of an overall paring back of information made publicly available with the report.

“The UCR Program streamlined the 2016 edition by reducing the number of tables from 81 to 29,” Stephen G. Fischer Jr., the chief of multimedia productions for the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services Division, said in an email.

Helpfully, however, Fischer did share FBI’s internal drug-by-drug breakdown numbers, and here’s what they reveal:

Marijuana possession busts comprised 37.36% of all reported drug arrests in the U.S. in 2016, and cannabis sales and manufacturing arrests accounted for another 4.18% of the total.

Added together, marijuana arrests made up 41.54% of the 1,572,579 drug busts in the country last year.

That means, based on an extrapolation, that police arrested people for cannabis 653,249 times in the U.S. in 2016.

That averages out to about one marijuana arrest every 48 seconds.

According to the same calculation, there were 643,121 U.S. cannabis arrests in 2015.

So arrests for marijuana are on the rise, even as more states legalize it.

One important caveat about the data: The percentages of overall drug arrests accounted for by marijuana possession and sales are extrapolated from a table that includes only data from law enforcement agencies that collected and provided the specific breakdowns. Those numbers account for just over 75% of the total reported drug arrests in the country. Therefore, the calculations could be thrown off by agencies that made particularly large or small numbers of arrests for marijuana as compared to other drugs, depending on which police forces are providing the breakdowns.

This limitation also applies to past years’ widely reported marijuana arrest data based on the formerly public tables, however, and so provides the best (and only) way to track the rise and fall of cannabis arrests over time.

For more information on the new drug arrest data from FBI, see my earlier piece.

This story was first published by Forbes.

Photo courtesy of Highway Patrol Images.

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Tom Angell is the editor of Marijuana Moment. A 20-year veteran in the cannabis law reform movement, he covers the policy and politics of marijuana. Separately, he founded the nonprofit Marijuana Majority. Previously he reported for and MassRoots, and handled media relations and campaigns for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and Students for Sensible Drug Policy.


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