Marijuana Arrests Were Up Last Year—and You're Paying Billions for It

Chronic marijuana users don't stress out as easily as people who don't use marijuana, study says.
Marijuana busts are rising, despite widespread legalization laws. In one year, costs for marijuana arrests amounted to more than $3.6 billion. REUTERS/Henry Romero

Updated | Marijuana busts increased last year, with nearly 600,000 people being arrested on a possession charge—a staggering number that costs taxpayers billions of dollars even as the vast majority of Americans support legalization of the drug.

The new arrest data, released Monday by the FBI, comes at a time when nearly 30 states allow the drug for medical use and eight have legalized it recreationally.

"It's really shocking in this era that these numbers are so high," said Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, executive director of Drug Policy Alliance. "It really makes you question why law enforcement is wasting resources and locking people up for personal use of marijuana."

The statistic is not only telling for those targeted by the war on drugs, it's also costly for taxpayers who footed the bill for about 587,700 people to make their way through the criminal justice system last year.

A study found that in 2010, when busts reached about 750,000, the cost of arrests amounted to more than $3.6 billion—and Sánchez-Moreno says the cost is still in the billions, even though overall arrests are down 20 percent since their peak.

And that's not even counting the cost of lost work time and the lingering financial burden of having a criminal record that stunts future employment opportunities, she added.

It all comes as 57 percent of voters think legalization of pot would make society better, according to a poll released in August. The same poll said 86 percent of Americans believe weed should be legalized in some capacity.

The arrest increase "only further demonstrates the need for state lawmakers to respect the will of the majority of their constituents and end the practice of marijuana prohibition once and for all," said Justin Strekal, political director of NORML, which seeks to liberalize marijuana laws.

Sánchez-Moreno said the increase, about 14,000, isn't the sign of a surge in the war on drugs, but might simply be a change in the way data was collected. Since 2010, the number of marijuana arrests have gone down significantly and is expected to decrease again, despite last year's uptick.

That said, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has called on states to stop legalizing drugs and said he will push for harsher punishments for drug offenders.

Whether there will be more arrests or not, more people were arrested in 2016 for marijuana possession in this country than for all violent crimes in 2016, which includes murder, rape, aggravated assault and robbery, The Washington Post noted.

Marijuana possession remains one of the single largest arrest categories in the nation and accounts for more than 5 percent of all arrests.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated that marijuana possession accounted for more than 5 percent of all incarcerations, not arrests.