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The Drug War's Latest Tally: 872,721 Pot Arrests, an All-Time High

Cannabis arrests now comprise nearly 47.5 percent of all drug arrests in the United States, 89% of them for mere possession.
 
 
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If denial is the first sign of addiction, then Drug Czar John Walters is hooked to the gills. He's addicted to targeting and arresting marijuana consumers, and he'll do and say anything to keep this irrational and punitive policy in place.

Speaking earlier this month on C-Span, the reigning Czar stretched his usual deceit to outrageous new heights. Responding to a question from the Marijuana Policy Project's Dan Bernath, Walters flatly denied the charge that over 800,000 Americans are arrested annually for violating pot laws.

"We didn't arrest 800,000 marijuana users," Walters proclaimed. "That's [a] lie."

If only it were.

According to data released yesterday in the FBI's annual Uniform Crime Report, police in 2007 arrested over 872,000 US citizens - that's nearly one out of every two Americans busted for illicit drugs -- for weed. (The raw data is available from the US Federal Bureau of Investigation here and here.) That figure is a five percent increase over the total number of Americans busted in 2006. It's more than three times the number of citizens charged with pot violations sixteen years ago.

Of those arrested in 2007, 89 percent - some 775,000 Americans -- were charged with simple pot possession, not trafficking, cultivation, or sale. (By comparison, 27 percent of those arrested for heroin and cocaine offenses were charged with sales.) Three out of four were under age 30; one in four were 18-years-old or younger.

The FBI's tally is the highest marijuana arrest total ever-reported in law enforcement history. If this pace continues, annual arrests for pot will surpass one million per year by 2010.

But to hear America's top drug cop tell it few, if any, citizens are ever arrested for pot possession, and absolutely no one goes to jail for breaking marijuana laws.

"The fact is today, people don't go to jail for the possession of marijuana," Walters alleged on C-Span. "Finding somebody in jail or prison for possession of marijuana is like finding a unicorn. It doesn't exist."

Not true says the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics, which reported last year in black and white -- perhaps the Drug Czar is reading impaired - that 12.7 percent of state inmates and 12.4 percent of federal inmates incarcerated for drug abuse violations are serving time for marijuana offenses. Combining these percentages with separate U.S. Department of Justice statistics on the total number of state and federal drug prisoners suggests that, at a minimum, there are now about 33,655 state inmates and 10,785 federal inmates behind bars for marijuana offenses. (The report failed to include estimates on the percentage of inmates incarcerated in county or local jails for pot-related offenses, nor did it take into account the number of inmates serving time for violating the terms of their marijuana-related probation, such as those who submitted a 'dirty' urine to their parole officer.)

No matter how one slices it, that's a lot of unicorns.

It also begs the question: Why does the Drug Czar feel the need to go to such absurd lengths to hide this overt outgrowth of American drug policy? After all, the US Drug Enforcement Administration and the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy typically issue chest-thumping press releases when they achieve record busts for offenses involving cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine? Why then do they shy away from making similar proclamations for pot?

Perhaps it's because, deep down, even the Drug Czar knows that the use of cannabis does not pose anywhere near the health and safety threat as does the use of other intoxicants, including alcohol, and that most Americans - rightly - would be outraged to learn that our nation's so-called war on drugs is really just an assault on young adults caught with small bags of weed.

Paul Armentano is the Deputy Director of NORML and The NORML Foundation in Washington, DC.

 
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