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More good marijuana news: New statistics show arrests for simple cannabis possession have been on the decline for the last five years across the country. This marks a major turnaround after the arrest rate increased for more than 15 straight years.

Marijuana HandcuffsThe peak hit in 2009, the year President Obama took office. It started in 1992, 17 years earlier, under the administration of President Bill Clinton, and climbed unchecked through the 1990s and 2000s – even as state after state enacted cannabis reform.

In 2007, there were nearly 900,000 arrests on weed charges. Last year, the number dropped for the fifth straight year, dipping below 700,000 for the first time since 2002.

It remains something of a mystery why the numbers turned around when they did. Americans took a relatively passive approach to pot until the late 1980s and the presidency of George H.W. Bush. By 1992, when then-candidate Clinton claimed he had toked but not inhaled, the nation was on the warpath against low-level potheads.

Bush’s office created war on weed

Fewer than 300,000 people were busted on pot charges in 1991, the third year of Bush’s single term in office. Bush created the office of the White House drug czar and launched a new assault on marijuana users from coast to coast.

California adopted the world’s first legal medical marijuana program just five years later, sparking a nationwide reform movement, yet the arrest rate continued to climb unabated. Changing public opinion toward cannabis seemed to have little effect on law enforcement strategies.

That seems to have changed at roughly the time Obama first won office in 2008. By then, several other states had adopted medical weed and a tidal wave of state-level reform was imminent.

Four years into Obama’s presidency, Colorado and Washington became the first two states to legalize recreational marijuana. They were joined this month by Alaska, Oregon, and Washington, D.C.

The FBI statistics cover all arrests, under both federal and state law, and it’s not clear what led to the recent declines. It may be partly due to rapidly changing public perceptions about pot use.

American public supports recreational marijuana use

Most American voters now say they support legalization of recreational weed, a growing trend. As the public becomes increasingly tolerant of marijuana, it becomes harder for law enforcement to justify arrests and criminal prosecutions.

legalize_marijuana_fed-billThe long, harsh crackdown on pot users from the early 1990s to the late 2000s had little notable effect. The rate of cannabis use remained roughly the same among both adults and teens, even as arrests soared.

The only real impact was felt in minority neighborhoods, where police arrested African-Americans and Latinos for possession at a much higher rate than whites – even though all races use marijuana at similar rates.

Thankfully, the good news is likely to continue. As each new state adopts marijuana reform, arrests will drop sharply in those places. California, the most populous state in the country, is likely to legalize in 2016, and that alone could have a major impact on national arrest statistics.

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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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