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Marijuana arrests have been declining since 2009

(AP Photo/The Oregonian, Beth Nakamura)

(AP Photo/The Oregonian, Beth Nakamura)

It’s been a productive several years for marijuana legalization. Colorado, Washington, Washington D.C., Alaska, and Oregon have all passed legalization measures. Twenty-three states allow medical marijuana. Some Coloradans are about to celebrate their first “Green Friday” and “Happy Danksgiving.”

And after years of extraordinarily high arrest rates for simple possession, marijuana arrests are down across the country, according to the latest FBI crime report.

From the early 1990s to 2007, marijuana arrests climbed from fewer than 288,000 to nearly 837,000. And according to a review by Reason’s Jacob Sullum, the data does not show a clear relationship between increased marijuana use and more arrests.

From Sullum’s article in Forbes:

The risk of arrest for any given pot smoker rose substantially between 1991 and 2007 but remained small. In 1991, according to the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (NHSDA), about 15 million Americans smoked pot. That year there were about 288,000 marijuana arrests, one for every 52 cannabis consumers. In 2007, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (successor to the NHSDA), about 25 million Americans smoked pot. That year there were about 873,000 marijuana arrests, one for every 29 cannabis consumers.

This leaves the drastic 2007 spike largely unexplained. In New York, where arrests have been high in past years, Sullum speculates that officers may have begun arresting people for possessing marijuana in the “public view” after the police officers shook it out their pockets while stopping them on the street. In 2011, police commissioner Ray Kelly had to issue a statement expressly forbidding this practice, saying “the public display of marihuana must be an activity undertaken of the subject’s own volition.”

New York City is now about to begin issuing tickets for low-level marijuana possession in lieu of arrests.

The country-wide decline in arrests comes at a time when over 50 percent of Americans support marijuana legalization, and many states find their prisons overcrowded with nonviolent criminals. 88 percent of the 8.2 million marijuana arrests between 2001 and 2010 were for simple possession.

The disparate racial impact of marijuana arrests has also become a frequent concern. Although blacks and whites are about equally as likely to use marijuana, blacks are 3.72 times more likely to be arrested.

Alarmists have already begun making dooms-day predictions about how reducing marijuana arrests will result in “the breakdown of a civilized society.”

But Sullum notes that, given the historically high rate of arrests this decade to begin with, that’s far from likely:

A little historical perspective suggests that such apocalyptic warnings are premature. The NYPD could cut low-level possession arrests in half and still bust a lot more pot smokers than it did in any year prior to 1997. Likewise, last year’s nationwide total of 693,000 marijuana arrests, although one-fifth lower than the number in 2007, was still more than twice as high as the 1991 tally. Furthermore, a recent study by Jon Gettman, a professor of criminal justice at Shenandoah University in Virginia, found that marijuana arrests rose in some states between 2008 and 2012 while falling in others.

Read the full piece at Forbes.

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