Even as the people of New Jersey are set to decide whether to legalize marijuana for adult recreational purposes, there is troubling news about marijuana enforcement generally.
Eleven states have already legalized marijuana for adult use, while 33 states and the District of Columbia have authorized medical marijuana. Twenty-six states and the District have decriminalized possessing small amounts of weed for personal consumption. This is clearly a trend, with more and more states legalizing more and more broadly.
Consider that very few people are being arrested for marijuana possession in the states where weed is legal. If that’s the case, how can police officers in the U.S. still be arresting more people for marijuana offenses than for any other drug?
According to FBI data, U.S. police made around 663,000 arrests for marijuana offenses in 2018. That’s 40% of all drug arrests, of which there were 1.65 million that year nationwide, according to the Pew Research Center.
Moreover, 92% of those marijuana arrests were for possession alone. That indicates that the focus on marijuana is not a focus on those who illegally traffic in the drug. Instead, police around the country – at least in states where the drug remains illegal – have been cracking down hard on marijuana possession.
The good news that marijuana’s share of all drug arrests is actually dropping. Even though the drug was involved in 40% of all drug arrests in 2018, that is down from 52% in 2010.
At the same time, however, the share of marijuana arrests involving mere possession has gone up. In 2011, 87% of marijuana arrests were for possession. In 2018, it was 92%.
In the end, a growing share of Americans live in states where marijuana is legal for adult use, but the share of marijuana possession arrests is growing. That implies that police are doubling down on marijuana arrests in states where the drug remains illegal for recreational purposes.
What does this mean for New Jersey?
The FBI doesn’t keep data on marijuana arrests by state, but we can see some trends based on region. For example, the West has the largest number of states where marijuana use is legal for adults. (Washington, Oregon, California, Alaska, Nevada and Colorado.) As you might expect, only 15% of drug arrests in the West involved marijuana, compared to a nationwide average of 40%.
Correspondingly, marijuana arrest rates are higher in the regions with fewer legalization states. In the Northeast, 53% of drug arrests were for marijuana, compared to that national average of 40%.
In other words, arrests for marijuana are high in the Northeast, including New Jersey.
The American public is increasingly willing to legalize or at least decriminalize marijuana possession. It seems like there should be fewer marijuana arrests overall, since fewer states are enforcing these laws. However, people are still going to jail in large numbers for possessing marijuana.