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The number of weed busts in the United States has dropped steadily over the last 23 years, but according to a report in The Washington Post, those busts are becoming an ever-larger portion of all criminal arrests.

Marijuana HandcuffsIndeed, in the same period of time, the share of arrests for simple possession more than tripled. Currently, they account for more than 5 percent of all arrests – a huge number relative to other crimes. In the early 1990s, by contrast, the rate of marijuana arrests was less than 2 percent of the total.

The statistics are evidence of how may police officers refuse to acknowledge changes in society and its justice priorities. Instead, they continue to arrest tokers at almost every opportunity.

Why? It actually has very little to do with the moral attitudes of individual cops, though there aren’t many that favor marijuana reform. Instead, its about a culture of dependency.

Without illegal weed, local and state police lose millions of dollars in criminal asset seizures and civil property forfeitures. The money from pot busts keeps many departments, especially small ones, alive.

Without that approach, police would need to find new ways to supplement federal grants and other sources of revenue – and some of those grants could be rescinded if cops don’t fight weed hard enough.

Law enforcement, in other words, has no motive to bust fewer users. If anything, the motivation is to arrest more users and then collect more grant money.

What’s more, weed – more specifically the smell of it – gives police probable cause to search you and your property. That’s no longer the case in Washington State and Colorado, where pot is legal, but elsewhere marijuana is a standard excuse to violate stoners’ Fourth Amendment rights.

All this flies in the face of modern understandings of drugs and addiction. Even some of the most hardened anti-drug agencies in the federal government are moving away from prosecution as a way to deal with drugs.

The drug czar’s office, for instance, released a statement stressing the agency seeks to achieve “balance” between criminal charges and a health-centered approach.

“Drug addiction is not a moral failing but rather a disease of the brain that can be prevented and treated,” the drug czar’s office says on its website. “Drug policy is a public health issue, not just a criminal justice issue.”

The criminal approach has almost always prevailed in the past, so the office will have to drastically change its ways to live up to that promise.

In 2012, 658,000 people were busted for simple possession across the country. That amounts to 42 percent of drug-related arrests – more than any other drug – and 5.4 percent of all criminal busts.

And the states that produce this data often try to portray their policies in a positive light by fudging figures. That means the numbers could be much higher.

New York leads the pack of states with high marijuana arrest rates. There, a whopping 12.7 percent, one arrest in eight, results from a sneaky loophole in state cannabis law.

growing marijuana plantsNew York decriminalized in the 1970s, but the loophole allows cops to trick suspects into emptying their pockets during “stop and frisks.” If the person complies, and his pockets contain marijuana, police can and will arrest the person because the pot was “in plain view,” even if only after cops conned the suspect into pulling it out.

Legally, by the way, you never have to empty your pockets when a police office asks you to do so. They can only command you to do so if they have probable cause to believe you’re committing a crime. The request, in other words, is just a request, no matter how intimidating – and you always can and should refuse. Police can still frisk you for weapons, but they can’t just dig into your pockets without finding a gun or a knife during the pat down.

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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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