Texas law enforcement make more annual marijuana arrests than do police in any other state, according to newly reported arrest data compiled by Jon Gettman, associate professor of criminal justice at Shenandoah University.
Of the nearly 531,000 marijuana arrests reported to the FBI in 2016, the most recent year for which data is available, an estimated 12 percent of arrests occurred in Texas. (Marijuana arrest data for the states of Florida, Illinois, and Washington, DC were not reported that year.) Six addition states – Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Virginia – also reported 20,000+ marijuana arrests in 2016. Here is a look at the top 5 states on this list.
Texas has long been the statewide leader in marijuana arrests and 2016 was no exception. Police made 64,949 cannabis-related arrests that year, 98 percent of which were for simple possession. Under state law, all of these offenders face up to 180 days in jail, a $2,000 fine, and a lifelong criminal record.
Lawmakers in 2017 introduced legislation seeking to decriminalize minor marijuana possession offenses, but members of the House of Representative failed to hold a vote on the issue. As a result of this inaction, DA’s in various Texas cities, like Houston and San Antonio, have recently enacted municipal ‘cite-and-release’ programs. Under these local policies, defendants who successfully complete a pre-trial diversion program are shielded from receiving a criminal record.
As in past years, New York City remains the marijuana arrest capitol of North America. Despite repeated pledges from NYC Mayor Bill DeBlasio that he would discourage the NYPD from making low-level pot arrests, city cops nonetheless made over 18,000 marijuana arrests in 2016 – comprising nearly half of the 36,997 total cannabis arrests statewide.
Ironically, lawmakers in 1977 decriminalized minor marijuana possession offenses – an act that should have halted the majority of these arrests. However, a loophole in the state law continues to allow for police, at their discretion, to bump charges up to a criminal misdemeanor in instances where they say the marijuana was “open to public view.” Repeated legislative attempts in recent years to close this loophole have been unsuccessful.
Despite growing support among Garden State voters in favor of the outright legalization of cannabis, annual marijuana arrests in New Jersey have skyrocketed in recent years – up some 25 percent since 2014 to total 35,700 in 2016. This spike in marijuana law enforcement occurred under former Governor, and long-time anti-pot zealot, Chris Christie. By contrast, newly elected Gov. Phil Murphy campaigned on a promise to legalize adult marijuana use.
Since taking office, Gov. Murphy has stood firm on his pledge. In March, he moved forward with regulatory changes to greatly expand patients use of and access to medical cannabis. More recently, during his 2019 budget address, he double-down in his support for regulating the drug as opposed to simply decriminalizing it.
“I greatly respect those in this chamber who have proposed decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana, and I thank them for recognizing the importance of doing what's right and just for those who carry criminal records for past possession arrests. But decriminalization alone will not put the corner dealer out of business, it will not help us protect our kids, and it will not end the racial disparities we see,” he said. “If these are our goals – as they must be – then the only sensible option is the careful legalization, regulation, and taxation of marijuana sales to adults.”
Police in the Keystone State made 23,844 arrests for marijuana-related crimes in 2016. Eighty-three percent of those were for simple possession. Nonetheless, there are some signs of progress. In recent years, Philadelphia politicians have moved forward with efforts to aggressively reduce the number of minor marijuana arrests in the city. Specifically, this past February, newly elected District Attorney Larry Krasner announced that his office will cease prosecuting marijuana possession offenses altogether. Other cities, including Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, and State College, Pennsylvania have also adopted municipal decriminalization ordinances in recent years. The state’s Democrat Governor, Tom Wolf, is also on the record in support of decriminalization statewide, tweeting last month: “I support decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana. [We] shouldn’t focus on incarcerating people for [the] possession of small amounts of marijuana.”
Like in New Jersey, marijuana arrests in the Show Me State have risen significantly in recent years – totaling 22,462 in 2016. Fortunately, many of those facing low level possession charges no longer face the threat of jail time, as per legislation enacted on January 1, 2017. Under the new law, marijuana offenses involving the possession of ten grams or less face a fine, but not incarceration. Those found guilty of possessing greater amounts, however, face up to one year in jail.
Paul Armentano is the Deputy Director of NORML — the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. He is the co-author of the book, Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink? (Chelsea Green, 2013) and the author of the book, The Citizen’s Guide to State-By-State Marijuana Laws (Whitman Press, 2015).