The National Survey on Drug Use and Health is an annual survey conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services. They report that in 2017, an estimated 26 million Americans aged 12 or older were current (past-month) users of marijuana.
According to the annual Monitoring The Future survey conducted by the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, by 12th grade, there is very little difference in prevalence of marijuana use between white, black, and Latinx students. On the other hand, white high school seniors report the highest lifetime and annual prevalence levels for use of several substances including ecstasy, narcotics other than heroin, amphetamines, sedatives, tranquilizers, and alcohol.
The MTF reports that 80% of high school seniors report that they think marijuana would be very easy or fairly easy to get, yet only 45% report ever having used it. In comparison, according to the MTF, 78% of 12th graders report that cigarettes would be fairly easy or very easy to get, while 87% of 12th graders said that alcohol would be fairly easy or very easy to get.
According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, in 2017 there were 10,554,985 arrests by law enforcement nationwide for all criminal offenses. Authorities reported 518,617 arrests for all violent crimes, 1,249,757 arrests for all property offenses, and 1,632,921 arrests for drug law violations.
Most arrests for drug law violations in 2017 were for possession of a controlled substance (85.4%, or 1,394,515 drug arrests). Only 14.6% (238,404 arrests) were for sale or manufacture of a drug. Also in 2017, law enforcement in the US made a total of 599,282 arrests for simple possession of marijuana.
Researchers in New York City found that each arrest for simple possession of marijuana took up at least 2.5 hours of police time. More research is needed to know whether more or less police time is taken up for possession arrests involving other substances, though my gut feeling is that more law enforcement time and resources are taken up when it’s a substance other than marijuana.
Here’s why that police time matters: According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, in 2017 law enforcement nationwide could only clear 45.6% of all violent crimes and 17.6% of all property crimes. Those figures are roughly consistent with law enforcement success over the past two decades. (An offense is counted as “cleared” when someone is arrested, charged with an offense, and turned over to the court for prosecution. It does not indicate whether anyone was actually found guilty.)
It’s also important to remember that the FBI figures above only apply to reported crimes. National crime victimization surveys by the US Department of Justice show that people in the US report less than 45% of the violent crimes committed each year (barely over 50% of serious violent crimes). Only about 35% of the property crimes that are actually committed get reported to police.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, about 21% of people in jails or in state prisons convicted of any type of offense committed their crime to get money for drugs or to obtain drugs. People convicted of property crimes were more likely than any others to report they committed their offense to get drug money.
Law enforcement appears to be pretty good at catching people using illegal drugs who are also committing other crimes. Imagine how much better those clearance rates might be if police weren’t wasting time busting people for simple possession?
Putting people in prison for drug offenses does not make the community any safer. According to the Pew Research Center in 2018: “Pew compared state drug imprisonment rates with three important measures of drug problems — self-reported drug use (excluding marijuana), drug arrest, and overdose death — and found no statistically significant relationship between drug imprisonment and these indicators. In other words, higher rates of drug imprisonment did not translate into lower rates of drug use, arrests, or overdose deaths.”
At yearend 2015, the most recent year for which final data are reported, there were 1,298,159 people serving sentences in state prisons in the US, of whom 197,200 (15.2% of the total) had as their most serious offense a drug charge. Drug possession was the most serious offense for 44,700 of those people, or 3.4% of the entire state prison population.
Fourteen states and the federal Bureau of Prisons operate at over their maximum population capacity.
The illegal drug market is growing by leaps and bounds. In 2017, new psychoactive substances were being reported at the rate of about one per week, including new synthetic cannabinoids, synthetic cathinones, and synthetic opioids.