The drug war became a perpetual motion machine

Statistics compiled by the US Department of Justice reveal that arrests of Americans for simple cannabis possession have increased by over 300 percent nationwide since 1991. Washington Post writer Christopher Ingraham analyzed data provided by the DOJ to find that since 1991 cannabis arrests have tripled even though arrests for all crimes, including violent crimes, have reduced over that same period. Ingraham noted that the figures reported by the DOJ with respect to cannabis possession arrests “are likely even higher,” as some states do not report arrest data to the agency.

Ingraham found that 42 percent of all drug arrests in 2012 were arrests for simple possession of cannabis (as opposed to arrests for possession of cannabis with the intent to distribute the substance) and that cannabis possession arrests constituted 5.4 percent of all criminal arrests in 2012. The 2012 statistics as reported by the DOJ exemplify a trend over the course of 23 years reflecting a knowing and considered mindset of local and state police enforcers: cannabis arrests are easy, safe and, in light of failures to combat real crime and violent crime, serve to portray that police forces are doing their jobs promoting public safety. Ingraham also noted that his review of DOJ statistics revealed that, in 2012, 53 percent of all reported violent crimes in the US went unsolved, the perpetrators of these crimes remaining at large.

The government’s figures report that over that same 23 year period between approximately 600,000 and 700,000 Americans were arrested each year for simple cannabis possession. As we know from a raft of academic studies, and even from comments made by President Obama, the overwhelming proportion of cannabis possession arrestees during the past two decades have been African Americans and Latino Americans. While Ingraham notes that not all of the individuals who were subject to cannabis possession arrest ended up in prison, all of the arrestees were faced with the burdens of the costs of defending themselves and the on-going personal costs of living with an arrest record that impacts the arrestee’s employment opportunities, housing choices, ability to apply for student aid and a myriad of life-long road blocks to becoming full participants in our society and economy.

Ingraham’s review of the DOJ data also revealed the widely divergent law enforcement attitudes toward arresting simple cannabis possessors that are reflected in a state-by-state comparison of cannabis arrest rates. Cannabis users in Louisiana and Nebraska are 40 times more at risk for arrest than cannabis possessors in Massachusetts. And, the arrest disparities are even evident between so-called blue states. Ingraham reports that one of every eight arrests in New York is for cannabis possession, while in the bordering state of Massachusetts, cannabis possession arrests number only 1 out of every 1000.

The statistics that our own government provides detail how our citizens have been harmed by a conspiracy between law enforcers who see the value in spending time and resources busting minorities for non-violent victimless crimes and politicians who see the value in promoting the divisive and counterproductive drug war — both seeking to score points with their constituents by looking drug-war tough. But, are the costs to society worth the self-interested grandstanding? The data that Ingraham reviewed shows that the drug war has failed to end cannabis use but has become a perpetual motion machine, serving to promote law enforcement and political careers at the cost of harming the lives of hundreds of thousands of citizens every year for decades and thwarting research into the medical possibilities of cannabis.

Alas, in policy considerations there is never a magic bullet…but wait, reclassify, decriminalize, both of which can be done easily. All that is required is a bit of agreement and concerted effort by our law enforcement officials and politicians…but wait

Photo by Oregon DOT under Creative Commons license