After rising for three years in a row, marijuana arrests in the United States fell by 18 percent in 2019, according to the FBI’s latest numbers. Police made about 545,600 marijuana arrests last year, compared to about 663,400 in 2018. As usual, the vast majority of those arrests—92 percent—were for possession rather than manufacture or sale. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws reports that “much of the national decline resulted from a drop-off in marijuana arrests in Texas in 2019, which experienced over 50,000 fewer marijuana-related arrests last year” than in 2018.
Nationwide, marijuana arrests peaked at nearly 873,000 in 2007; last year’s number was 37 percent lower. While the odds that any given cannabis consumer will be arrested have always been low, they are getting lower. Possession arrests in 2007 represented about 3 percent of marijuana users that year, judging from survey data. That risk last year, when there were more marijuana users and fewer arrests, was down to about 1 percent.
As the above graph above indicates, marijuana arrests are down 27 percent since Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize the drug for recreational use in 2012, but the decline has not been smooth. After dropping in 2013, pot busts rose in 2014, fell in 2015, then rose slightly for three consecutive years before dropping substantially in 2019. During that period, nine other states and the District of Columbia legalized recreational marijuana, although Vermont and D.C. do not allow commercial distribution.
Since possession had been legalized in eight states—including California, the most populous—by 2017, it may seem surprising that marijuana arrests continued to rise until last year. But in California, possession of an ounce or less for personal use had been treated as a citable offense punishable only by a