The coronavirus pandemic and momentum of state-level marijuana legalization appear to have led to a sharp decline in cannabis arrests in 2020, according to new FBI data.

Last year saw 1,155,610 drug arrests in the US, with sales and possession of marijuana comprising a little more than 30 percent (350,150) of this total and cannabis possession accounting for the overwhelming majority of marijuana arrests.

This works out at a drug arrest every 27 seconds and a cannabis arrest every 90 seconds in 2020.

This means marijuana arrests are 50 percent lower now than the peak of 2008, and the 2020 figures are the lowest for cannabis arrests in the US since the early 1990s.

So while cannabis criminalization is still widespread in the US, it is nonetheless a significant drop from the 2019 numbers. That year, FBI data reported 545,601 cannabis arrests, or one every 58 seconds. This amounts to a 36 percent decrease overall in 2020.

The FBI doesn’t provide an interpretation of its data, but it’s reasonable to presume the combined effect of stay-at-home coronavirus mandates meant less people were at risk of being arrested for simple cannabis possession.

Plus, multiple states either passed cannabis reforms in 2020 or enacted reforms in 2019 that took effect last year. Illinois launched recreational marijuana sales on January 1, 2020, Hawaii, New Mexico, Virginia and North Dakota all decriminalized cannabis possession, while four states approved ballot measures on Election Day 2020 to legalize marijuana possession and sales.

“As more states move toward the sensible policy of legalizing and regulating cannabis, we are seeing a decline in the arrest of non-violent marijuana consumers nationwide,” said NORML Executive Director Erik Altieri. “The fight for legalization is a fight for justice. While these numbers represent a historic decline in arrests, even one person being put into handcuffs for the simple possession of marijuana is too many.”

While the drop in marijuana arrests is notable and commendable, it still occurs more frequently than arrests for burglary, fraud, embezzlement, murder, rape and robbery combined. The FBI’s figures are also not fully comprehensive, as not all local police departments submit their data.

But the long-term trend looks promising. Cannabis arrests had increased in the years between 2016 and 2019, following a decade of consistent declines.

Marijuana reform advocates hope to see this continue, with Virginia, New York, New Mexico and Connecticut all having legalized cannabis so far in 2021.

Even though New York is yet to launch recreational sales, the NYPD report that since possession was legalized there’s been a sharp drop in cannabis arrests from 163 in the first three months of 2021 to just eight in the most recent quarter. This is largely credited to the New York City council’s decision to allow cannabis consumption in public places wherever smoking tobacco is permitted.

About the Author: Matt Brooks

Matt is a journalist from San Francisco who has specialized in marijuana policy for more than six years.

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