NEW YORK (MainStreet) According to research by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), a leading pro-pot non-profit, drug arrests for marijuana rose from 2 per hour in 1966 to over 86 per hour in 2012. The trend, which reached a 40 year peak between 2007 and 2010, appears now to be on a slight downward trajectory according to NORML's analysis of the same.
This still means, however, that there is a marijuana related arrest approximately every 42 seconds in the United States.
According to the FBI, in the peak arrest year of 2010, a federal marijuana related arrest happened every 19 seconds. In 2010, 81% of all FBI arrests were for simple possession (of any drug). 853,000 people across the U.S. were arrested for some kind of marijuana violation. 750,000 of those arrests were of simple users (for whatever reason) according to the Marijuana Policy Project, a pro-legalization lobbying and research non-profit.
According to the FBI annual Uniform Crime report on the same, 52% of the drug arrests nationally made by the agency as late as 2010 were for marijuana. Marijuana also made up for the majority of arrests in the "War on Drugs." 63.5% of all drug arrests in the Midwest were for marijuana use (53.9%) and cultivation (9.6%). In the South, marijuana possession made up for 51.5% of all drug charges regionally.
And even though overall drug arrests are down, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, during the year between October 2012 and 2013, 27.6% of the entire new prison population was convicted first of a drug related offense.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who is about to initiate limited distribution of medicinal marijuana via New York state hospitals sometime this year, backed a plan to decriminalize possession of up to 15 grams of marijuana in 2013 as part of a Democratic initiative to reduce drug arrests in New York City. More than 50,000 people were arrested with 25 grams or less of marijuana in 2011 in the state, with the vast majority (94%) being residents in the city itself.
Of those, 82% were black or Hispanic, the governor has said.
Racial disparity in sentencing aside, the pure cost of maintaining a hard-on-crime approach to prosecution at the federal level is stirring up significant debates all over the country on not just cost, but the way the Drug War continues to be waged which many, including those in Congress, have begun to label a violation of states' rights.
According to the Drug Policy Alliance, a grassroots advocacy group, the United States spends an average of $51 billion annually on "fighting" the Drug War. This includes arrests, judicial administration of the same and the costs of jail time served by those convicted.
Advocates of reform of the nation's marijuana laws frequently point to the huge costs as being one of the most compelling reasons to remove federal criminalization. According to Drugwarfacts.org, a website maintained by Common Sense for Drug Policy, as much as a third to one-quarter of all federal and state prisoners were incarcerated for non-violent drug offenses. In 2007, almost 36% of the national prisoner population was in jail on a drug related offense. State imprisonment still dwarfed federal incarceration by almost 3:1 in 2007, the peak year for drug arrests since 1970.
Since 1990, the federal prison system's population of non-violent drug offenders has increased over 200% while the state prison system's population of the same has increased 63% during the same period per analysis of numbers reported by the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the U.S Federal Department of Justice.
That means over a quarter of a million people sit in state facilities and 95,000 in federal for some kind of drug related offense every year.
Using a widely cited number of $20,000 per year to house a federal prisoner, that means that in 2009 alone, it cost the American taxpayer close to $2 billion to house this population in federal facilities. And that is just for incarceration. In 2012, over 25% of the 5 million Americans on probation and 33% of those on parole were convicted first of a nonviolent drug crime.
With legalization for both medicinal and recreational use on the horizon in easily half of American states, the fate of those, particularly with mandated sentences, now hangs in the balance.
--Written by Marguerite Arnold for MainStreet