Home News Marijuana Arrests Declined For The First Time In Four Years. Why?

Marijuana Arrests Declined For The First Time In Four Years. Why?

by Andrew Ward
In 2019, the United States saw its marijuana arrests decline for the first time in four years. Still, over 545,600 cannabis busts occurred in 2019, totaling 35% of all arrests that year. The decline is a welcome sight to reform advocates. However, with over half a million held for cannabis, it is clear that arrests targeting the plant continue to be a fixture in American policing. When asked, industry insiders and legal experts alike told Green Flower of several theories about what might be going on in this robust, decades-old scenario.

Why Have Arrest Rates Shifted In Recent Years?

Several reasons were cited for the shifting cannabis arrest rates in recent years. A certain level of uncertainty underscored those reasons. Morgan Fox, Director of Media Relations for the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), said that pinpointing an answer is difficult. He noted cannabis laws that vary by state. The various cannabis laws are likely to lead to declines in arrest rates in some states, while others may increase. Fox theorized that rises in arrests are often due to a combination of over-policing and consumer overconfidence toward non-enforcement. “The latter is not really tied to any fluctuations in use patterns, which we’ve seen staying relatively stagnant or slightly increasing, but rather that there is greater cultural acceptance of cannabis, which may lead some consumers to be more cavalier in their possession or consumption behaviors,” Fox said. He once again stressed his belief was just a theory. Sara Tucker, a partner at Womble Bond Dickinson LLP in Atlanta, posited that the rise between 2016 and 2018 might have stemmed from the Trump administration’s stance toward cannabis as part of the issue. “Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the prosecutorial guidance, which stated the Department of Justice would not enforce federal marijuana laws in states where marijuana was legal,” she said. Tucker added, “Trump’s anti-immigrant policies, including making immigrants that have consumed marijuana or work legally in the cannabis industry ineligible for U.S. citizenship, also encourage ongoing state-level arrests.” The decline in arrest rates also came with its theories, but not as many as the arrest increase possibilities offered by sources. Several legal experts noted that cannabis reform is central to the arrest decline last year. Matt C. Pinsker, Esq. is a Central Virginia-based defense attorney and Adjunct Professor of Criminal Justice at Virginia Commonwealth University. He suggested that even if a state doesn’t pass reform, prosecutions decline as police opt not to charge for small possession. He posited that the criminal justice concerns of the past few months are having an impact as well. “Since the death of George Floyd, law enforcement, in general, have been less aggressive about patrol because they are unwilling to put themselves out there.” Pinsker stated that fewer traffic stops are being conducted. “As a result of less interactions with civilians, they are less likely to find contraband of any kind.” Tucker mentioned that the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill has affected arrests as well. The allowance of hemp leads some legal minds, like Florida-based criminal defense attorney Kris Parker, Esq., to believe that confusion helped reduce arrest numbers. “I would venture to say the reason for the decline in marijuana arrest is due in large part to the fact that common forensic drug testing methods can easily mistake the presence of CBD or hemp for THC,” said Parker. Parker elaborated that the confusion has led law enforcement to establish higher standards for making cannabis-based arrests. “In the Sixth Judicial Circuit of Florida, located in the Tampa Bay region, State Attorney Bernie McCabe issued a memorandum in 2019 urging law enforcement agencies to only make arrests when there are large amounts of marijuana, and that the bright-line rule no longer applies,” Parker said.

Why Do Cannabis Possession Arrests Continue?

The answer to the question is evident in illegal states. However, aside from breaking possession limits, the issue remains clouded in legalized states. For example, New York, a state with medical cannabis and decriminalized cannabis, continued to make possession arrests in 2019. By August that year, it was revealed that 94% of those arrested for low-level offenses were Black or Latino. Womble Bond and Dickinson’s Tucker touched on the matter. “Police should be focusing less on possession, but the reality is that police make more arrests for drug possession than all violent crimes combined,” she said. Tucker acknowledged the arrest disparity among ethnic groups, adding, “Despite the majority of Americans supporting legalization of marijuana, police departments are not holding back on possession arrests.” She said that the continued arrests are due to their ease of enforcement. “The current laws regarding legalization are confusing and not uniform,” she said. Tucker continued, “Even in some states where marijuana has been legalized or decriminalized, an individual could still be arrested for possessing marijuana.” NCIA’s Fox added that he’s seen confusion among police departments as well. “Some law enforcement departments continue to enforce cannabis prohibition with great zeal, while others are realizing that it is a waste of resources.” Despite the uncertainty among America’s police forces, Tucker sees the confusion affecting citizens much more. “Confusion over the status of the law is to the benefit of law enforcement officers and the detriment of the American people,” Tucker stated.

Will Arrest Rates Continue To Decline?

No source gave a definitive answer to the likelihood of continued drops in yearly cannabis arrests. Their hope matched the uncertainty over the future. Tucker noted the promise from the Biden/Harris ticket to decriminalize cannabis as a possible positive sign. That said, she does not believe the election will impact cannabis in the long-run. “Regardless of the election, cannabis is here to stay,” said Tucker.

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