Last year, according to data the FBI published this week, police in the United States made about 350,000 arrests for marijuana offenses, the lowest level recorded in three decades. The 36 percent drop in 2020, which follows an 18 percent decrease in 2019, reflects the impact of ballot initiatives and legislation that eliminated penalties for low-level possession last year or earlier. It may also reflect the impact of COVID-19 restrictions that drove cannabis consumers indoors, where they were less likely to be noticed by police.
As usual, the vast majority of marijuana arrests in 2020 (91 percent) were for simple possession, as opposed to cultivation or distribution. “As more states move toward the sensible policy of legalizing and regulating cannabis, we are seeing a decline in the arrest of non-violent marijuana consumers nationwide,” says Erik Altieri, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), in a press release. “The fight for legalization is a fight for justice. While these numbers represent a historic decline in arrests, even one person being put into handcuffs for the simple possession of marijuana is too many.”
There is reason to expect marijuana arrests to decline again this year. In seven states that recently legalized possession—Arizona, Connecticut, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, and Virginia, with a combined population of more than 50 million—the laws did not take effect until late 2020 or this year. All told, more than two-fifths of Americans live in the 18 states that have legalized marijuana for recreational use—a policy supported by about two-thirds of Americans, according to the latest Gallup poll. Nearly all of those states also allow commercial production and distribution or will soon.
Marijuana arrests did not initially follow the trajectory you might expect after Colorado and Washington became the first