Despite recent gains made by the marijuana legalization movement, prohibition remains alive and well in America, where over 653,000 cannabis-related arrests took place in 2016 alone. That's roughly one arrest every 48 seconds for a plant that is less harmful than tobacco and alcohol.
Those figures come from the FBI's latest Crimes in the United States (CIUS) report, which compiles data from police records provided by jurisdictions across the country. The numbers don't reveal exactly how many lives have been impacted by those arrests, but just one conviction can do more harm than a joint ever will.
Ex-convicts have tremendous difficulty getting jobs, social assistance, public housing and student loans in America because of their criminal records — even if they were charged with non-violent cannabis offenses like simple possession or personal cultivation. In some cases, people are barred from exercising constitutional rights like owning a firearm or even voting because of their record. That's the case for a Kentucky man who was caught growing marijuana plants in college 30 years ago.
Minorities are particularly vulnerable to pot busts. Even though blacks do not use marijuana more than whites on average, blacks are three times more likely to be arrested for possession. And that's just the national average. In some counties, blacks are 10, 15 and even 30 times more likely than whites to get arrested.
That's no accident, according to Kentucky Senator Rand Paul (R), who says many law enforcers use minor drug busts to boost arrest statistics that are crucial when applying for federal grants. Think of arrest stats as the SAT scores for local police. And the best way to make charges stick is to round up poor kids who can't afford to fight in court.
"Why are the arrest rates so lopsided?" Senator Paul wrote earlier this year in an op-ed for CNN. "Because it is easier to go into urban areas and make arrests than suburban areas. Arrest statistics matter when cities apply for federal grants. It doesn't take much imagination to understand that it's easier to round up, arrest, and convict poor kids than it is to convict rich kids."
But the cost of imprisoning non-violent drug offenders is putting the entire country's finances in dire straits. "Our prison population...has increased by over 700% since the 1980s, and 90% of them are nonviolent [drug] offenders," Senator Paul noted. "The costs of our prison system now approach nearly $100 billion a year. It costs too much, in both the impact on people's lives and on our tax dollars."
Legalizing recreational marijuana use wouldn't solve the nation's prison problem, but it would take a big bite out of the system's annual expenses. And it could offset other costs by stimulating local economies.
“Regulating marijuana for adults creates jobs, generates tax revenue, protects consumers, and takes money away from criminals,” Morgan Fox — Director of Communications for the Marijuana Policy Project — said in a statement regarding the FBI report. “It is time for the federal government and the rest of the states to stop ruining peoples’ lives and enact sensible marijuana policies.”
And it helps fight crime. In Oregon, 15 percent of cannabis taxes (which totalled $60.2 million in 2016 alone) are given to state law enforcement. If other jurisdictions followed suit, then cash-strapped police departments might not need to pad arrest statistics with pot busts in order to make ends meet.