In 2007 the Department of Justice reported that there were 1,841,182 drug arrests in the United States; the report noted that there were more drug abuse arrests than any other category of offenses. Marijuana arrests accounted for 47.4% of the drug abuse arrests. This allows us to estimate that about 872,720 persons were arrested for marijuana offenses. Eighty-nine percent of these arrests were for possession. The 2007 arrest data is even worse than 2006 when 829,627 people were arrested for marijuana (a Project Censored’s top 25 story in 2008). In 2005 there were 786,545 marijuana arrests, meaning that the number of arrests increased by 86K in just two years. Clearly, marijuana is an intense focus of police interest and activity; far more, apparently, than the less important crimes occurring at the same time on Wall Street.
The focus on marijuana may reflect its important role in feeding the prison-industrial complex. Last year the Pew Charitable Trusts reported the somber statistic that one out of every 100 Americans is behind bars. This rate is far and away the world’s highest making the US the world’s preeminent jailer. International comparisons (using a different estimate of incarcerations) highlight that the US incarceration rate of 750/100,000 population is 5.1 times that of England (148/100,000) and 8.8 times that of France (85/100,000). The website of the Marijuana Policy Project notes that: “Federal government figures indicate there are more than 41,000 Americans in state or federal prison on marijuana charges right now, not including those in county jails. That’s more than the number imprisoned on all charges combined in eight individual European Union countries.”
The phenomenon of concentrated arrests in specific, usually minority, neighborhoods has been called mass incarceration. It is well illustrated by our own reality in the Bronx. In New York City incarceration affects poor and working class communities among them certain neighborhoods in the the Bronx, the poorest of New York City’s five boroughs. In 2007, there were 86,446 adult arrests made in Bronx County, NY, a county of 1.4 million. Seventy-two percent of these arrests were for misdemeanors; fewer than 8% were for violent felonies. There is a marked racial differential in who gets incarcerated. In New York State prisons, 51% of inmates are African American and 26% are Hispanic , although African Americans and Hispanics comprise 17 and 16% of the New York State population respectively.
It is hard to justify this war on marijuana from any public health point of view. Readers who are interested in medical background on marijuana may want to read the 1999 Institute of Medicine book – Marijuana and Medicine – which is available for free at the National Academies Press. Websites of various advocacy groups (see below) detail the devastation brought about by the drug war. For young people marijuana arrests can have very serious consequences. Drug convictions bar students from receiving any Federal Student Loans. Again, this is a policy that preferentially impacts on working class and minority communities.
This is truly a case where the cure is worse than the disease. For advocacy on this issue visit the websites of