Marijuana is legal in some states, but the war on drugs continues, and certainly the war on marijuana has not abated. Even as recreational marijuana was legalized in Colorado and Washington, and measures passed in Alaska, Oregon and Washington, D.C, America’s wasteful and irrational obsession with marijuana criminalization is clear, according to the most recent FBI data on pot arrests.
In 2014, police across the country made a little over 700,000 arrests related to marijuana. Of that number, 88.4 percent were for weed possession (619,800 arrests), meaning that someone was arrested for possession every 51 seconds last year, as the Huffington Post reported. This was an increase from 609,570 in 2013, although possession-related arrests have been declining since 2007. Meanwhile, arrests for the sale and manufacture of marijuana continued to fall to a 20-year low in 2014 to 81,184 from a high of 103,247 in 2010.
To understand the war on drugs, it is necessary to understand marijuana. Last year, 44.9 percent of drug arrests in the U.S. were for weed, with pot possession accounting for 39.7 percent of all drug arrests and over 5.5 percent of all arrests in the nation. Nine out of ten of the individuals arrested were not violent and had no felony background. This comes as real crimes are being committed, as FBI data shows that more than a third of murders in 2014 were unsolved.
Meanwhile, as America spends $3.6 billion each year on enforcement of marijuana possession laws, according to the ACLU, countless lives are ruined in terms of jail and prison time, even life sentences, financial hardship, and lost jobs and license revocations. More states will consider marijuana legalization in 2016, including Arizona, California, Massachusetts, Missouri and Nevada. A majority of Americans favor legalization and 30 million people use marijuana.
As Jesse Wegman related in a July 24, 2014 New York Times op-ed, as the war on drugs progressed, it focused on low level offenses, known as “broken windows” policing. In New York, while police made fewer than 800 arrests in 1991, they made over 59,000 in 2010. Further, from 2001 to 2010, there were 8.2 million marijuana arrests, and in 2011 police arrested more people for pot possession than for all violent crimes combined.
The war on marijuana is a war on Black people, as the racial disparities are clear. Although Blacks and whites use weed at the same rates, Blacks are 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for possession than whites, according to a report from the ACLU. Moreover, Black people are more likely to be arrested for marijuana offenses in every state except Hawaii. The worst state is Iowa, where Blacks are 8.3 times more likely to be arrested than whites.
As Maia Szalavitz reported in The Fix last year, most of what people believe about marijuana is the result of racist, unscientific and paranoid government propaganda. When marijuana prohibition went into effect in 1937, the opposition of the American Medical Association to the policy was ignored. Rather, racism drove the efforts to criminalize weed. Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (a predecessor of the DEA), a leader in marijuana prohibition, made raw appeals to racism. For example, he said “Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men,” and the main reason for prohibition was “its effect on the degenerate races.” Anslinger did not mince words, adding:
There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.
And the racism underlying marijuana policy in America is still being felt today. This is why a person, usually Black, is arrested for weed possession every 51 seconds.