At first glance 749,825 arrests for marijuana offenses in the United States in 2012 looks like arrests are starting to decrease, and indeed there have been reductions in marijuana arrests since the high point of 872,720 arrests in 2007.

However, a new report on marijuana arrests and marijuana use at the state-level takes a closer look at data on these topics, focusing on the five year period from 2008 to 2012, and highlights a number of significant issues for those interested in marijuana law reform.

The report is Marijuana in the States 2012: Analysis and Detailed Data on Marijuana Use and Arrests. This report is now available at RegulatingCannabis.com, a new website dedicated to exploring the critical issues associated with the legalization of marijuana in the United States with research, data collection, policy analysis, commentary and critical thinking. The site also presents a detailed White Paper on Cannabis Regulation and the Public Interest, laying out the case for creating a free, competitive market framework for regulating marijuana.

Marijuana in the States provides state level data on marijuana use and marijuana arrests that is otherwise not generally available.

The arrest rate for marijuana offenses in the United States has decreased from 278 per 100,000 in 2008 to 239 per 100,000 in 2012. However marijuana arrests, and the arrest rate, have increased considerably over the last two decades. The arrest rate in 2012 represents a 110% increase in the marijuana arrest rate since 1991.

Marijuana arrests are increasing in several states. From 2008 to 2012 seventeen states had average annual increases in the marijuana arrest rate of 1% or more. Of these 17 jurisdictions, 12 had an annual increase greater than 2% and eight greater than 3% per year. They account for 28.8% of the population of the United States and 44.6% of the arrests for marijuana offenses. 

The top ten places that marijuana arrests have been increasing the most are South Carolina, the District of Columbia, South Dakota, North Dakota, Utah, Illinois, Montana, Idaho, Virginia, New York and New Jersey (tied for 10th place). In these ten places, marijuana arrests have been increasing at an average annual rate of 2.4% or greater. The remaining places with increasing arrest rates (from 1% to 2.1% per year) are Oregon, Tennessee, Wisconsin, Vermont, Michigan and West Virginia.

Another key finding of the report is that while the United States has doubled marijuana arrests in the last two decades this has not achieved any reduction in marijuana use. In fact, annual marijuana use in the United States has been increasing at a biannual rate of 3.9% since the 2002/2003 period. Marijuana use has been increasing at the greatest biannual rate in Idaho (13.20%), Arizona (11.5%), Delaware (11%), Tennessee (9.5%), Nevada (8.4%), and New Jersey (8.4%). As far as the level of marijuana use, Vermont had the greatest amount of annual marijuana use in the 2010/2011 period (19.0%) followed by Alaska (18.8%), the District of Columbia (18.7%), Rhode Island (18.7%) and Oregon (16.9%).

Other interesting findings concern risk perception and the availability of marijuana. In the 2010/2011 period, 57.3% of those 12 and older stated they do not associate great risk with the use of marijuana one to two times per week. The perception that marijuana is easy or fairly easy to get is held by 57.4% of those age 12 or older in the United States.

There have been more than 19 million arrests for marijuana offenses since 1981 in the United States. However the data presented in this report indicates that marijuana is widely used, not perceived as a great risk by a majority of the population and widely available.

Marijuana arrests accounted for two-thirds or more of all drug arrests in five states: Nebraska (74.1%), New Hampshire (72%), Montana (70.3%), Wyoming (68.7%) and Wisconsin (67.1%)

The five state-level jurisdictions with the highest arrest rates for marijuana offenses are the District to Columbia (729), New York (577), Louisiana (451), Illinois (447) and Nebraska (421).

The lowest marijuana arrest rates are in California and Massachusetts. Aside from these states the lowest arrest rates are in Alaska (127), Hawaii (109), Washington (105), Connecticut (104) and Alabama (75).

Nationally, only 2.8% of marijuana users were arrested in 2010/2011. The arrest percentage of all users varied from 1% or less in Hawaii, Montana, Vermont and Massachusetts to 5% or more in Wyoming, Nebraska, Maryland, New York and Louisiana. Remember these figures when police officers oppose marijuana law reform based on their experience with marijuana users. Police only have contact with a very small percentage of marijuana users, and these are not a representative sample of the full population of marijuana consumers in the United States.

The conclusion of this report notes that public support for ending marijuana prohibition has reached unprecedented levels while many law enforcement officers, representatives and supporters continue to oppose marijuana law reform. Given the data demonstrating the failure of marijuana arrests to control marijuana use, the report concludes with the following comments:

“When it comes to the issue of marijuana arrests, especially in light of the data on arrests and use, the issue of law enforcement’s support for continuing and increasing marijuana arrests warrants scrutiny.

“With all due respect, don’t police have anything better to do with their time and resources?  This question may seem a bit flippant at first glance given national concern over drug abuse and related problems. However there are other public policy measures devoted to addressing these problems, and many of them have demonstrated effectiveness. Education and prevention programs have proven effective at reducing alcohol and tobacco use. Are police officers concerned that ending marijuana arrests will divert law enforcement funding to other social programs? The financial benefits law enforcement receives due to laws providing for the arrest of marijuana users need to be studied and debated.

“In light of their failure to curb the increase in marijuana use, the costs and benefits of marijuana arrests, and who bears them, require greater study.”