November 2009 Issue Number 7.

2 min read

Executive Summary

This report provides an overview to a vast amount of data reported in the Marijuana Policy Almanac, available at This almanac provides the largest collection of detailed data about marijuana arrests in the United States ever released to the public. It contains detailed data at the national, state, county, and local agency level about marijuana arrests and related topics, such as marijuana use, criminal justice costs, and clearance rates for serious crimes. The Marijuana Policy Almanac also contains individual summary reports for each state, and rankings of states by penalties for marijuana possession, marijuana arrest rates, and the number of marijuana users.

These data shed some light on the growing national and regional debate over whether marijuana prohibition is a policy that effectively delivers benefits that justify its human or fiscal cost.

Specific findings include the following:

1) Nationally, there is little apparent relationship between increasing marijuana arrests and rates of use.

  • Marijuana arrests have nearly doubled from 1991 to 2009, increasing by 150% during the 1990s and increasing steadily in recent years, producing an annualized change of 6.56% per year during this period.
  • Overall, levels of marijuana use in the United States have remained fundamentally unchanged during this period.Population estimates of annual marijuana use, for example, have remained relatively constant over the last five years at approximately 25 million individuals.
  • From 2003 to 2007, the number of annual marijuana arrests increased by 2.93% per year, while the number of annualmarijuana users decreased by 0.21% per year.
  • The overall marijuana arrest rate of between 3% and 6% of users is not enough to represent a meaningful deterrent.

2) There are wide disparities between states in both marijuana arrest rates and the severity of penalties. These differences bear little relationship to rates of use, while the penalty structure actually serves as a price support for the illicit market.

  • Thirteen states have decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana, and Georgia mandates probation for such offenses.
  • However, 30 states, plus the District of Columbia, have maximum penalties of six months to a year in jail for possession of about one ounce of marijuana. State law in Floridaprovides for a maximum penalty of five years. For possession of two ounces of marijuana, 18 states have maximum penaltiesof one year, and 16 have maximum penalties of more than one year, including maximum sentences of 10 years in Arkansas, Georgia, and Oregon and seven years in Missouri.
  • This penalty structure effectively demands that marijuana consumers make multiple small purchases of marijuanaover time. This works to prop up the price of marijuana and benefits the illegal market.
  • These laws, by making marijuana an attractive commodity for small-scale sales, have created a substantial marketin which teenagers sell marijuana to other teenagers, making marijuana easily accessible to young people. According to the 2007 NSDUH, 742,932 youths aged 12 to 17 sold illegal drugsin the preceding 12 months.
  • The national marijuana arrest rate is 290 per 100,000. The jurisdictions with the highest marijuana arrest ratesare the District of Columbia (677), New York (481), and Kentucky (479). The states with the lowest are Vermont (149),Montana (145), and Hawaii (119).
  • While some decriminalized states, such as Maine and Colorado, have high rates of marijuana use, others, including Mississippi and Nebraska, have below-average rates of use.
  • Some states, including South Carolina and Missouri, have among the highest arrest rates of marijuana users but low levels of marijuana use, while Washington, D.C. has both a high arrest rate and a high rate of use. Utah and North Dakota have low levels of use and below-average arrest rates, while states such as Alaska, Massachusetts and Montana have low arrest rates and high levels of use.

3) Young people and African-Americans are disproportionately affected by marijuana arrests.

  • Males aged 15 to 24 account for 52% of all marijuana arrests. While the national rate of marijuana possession arrests is 248 per 100,000, the arrest rate for males aged 15 to 19 is 1,911 per 100,000.
  • While the marijuana-use rate for African-Americans is only about 25% greater than for whites, the marijuana possession arrest rate for blacks is three times greater. This is not a regional disparity, but is seen in every state and most counties.

4) The costs of arresting marijuana users are substantial, and raise serious questions about the cost effectiveness of marijuana prohibition.

  • Using the same method of calculation used by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, marijuana arrests cost state and local governments $10.3 billion in 2006.
  • Marijuana arrests represent 6% of all arrests. In many states, they represent the fifth, sixth, or seventh largest category of arrests.
  • The clearance rate (i.e. the percentage of crimes solved by arrest) for murder, rape, robbery, assault, burglary, larceny, and motor vehicle theft was 26% in 2007, meaning that no one is arrested for three quarters of these serious crimes. In this environment, time and resources spenton roughly 850,000 marijuana arrests per year represent a significant opportunity cost.
  • In California, decriminalization of marijuana possession saved taxpayers $857 million in 2006 (details in the California state report (PDF)).

Read the full report: Marijuana Arrests in the United States (2007) (PDF Version)

This work was funded by a generous grant from the Marijuana Policy Project Foundation.