Reform, change, improvement—we’re repeatedly told that these are processes. Journeys. Paths and routes, often long and sometimes circuitous. Effort and patience are prerequisites. “The arc of the moral universe is long.” Two steps forward. One back. Old dogs, new tricks.
It would be altogether too much, then, to expect the nation’s police apparatus to click its heels, turn and about face from decades of “best practices,” particularly ones that have persisted against all reason, logic and public opinion.
If it’s proven difficult to guarantee the most vulnerable among us their basic Constitutional rights, and if police have demonstrated a remarkably pronounced reluctance to stop shooting unarmed black men and women dead in the street—even when they are on video—it would be the height of naivety to sit back and assume that America’s law enforcement officers would check the polling, nod sagely and cede the field in the War on Drugs.
To this very day, based merely on the number of people arrested, there is no crime more important for American police than “crimes” involving drugs. In fact, as revealed by new stats, cops are still arresting more people for drugs than any other crime.
Cops Are Still Arresting More People for Drugs Than any Other Crime
In 2016, a year when violent crime was on the rise across the country, police found the time to arrest more people for drug-related violations than any other crime, according to the FBI’s annual Uniform Crime Report, which was released on Monday.
Nearly 1.6 million Americans were taken into police custody for drugs. That’s a 5.63 percent increase from 2015. And this spike came in the same year that saw a near-universal approval of drug policy reform by American voters.
Last year, voters in North Dakota, Montana, Arkansas and Florida all approved medical marijuana measures. California, Massachusetts, Maine and Nevada legalized recreational marijuana for adults.
The country was one falsehood-fueled campaign funded by a synthetic opiate manufacturer away from a perfect record. It’s no accident that some of the most fervent and virulent opposition to legalization came from police chiefs and police unions.
To extrapolate, it appears almost as if American police celebrated the expansion of marijuana legalization—a full 65 million people now live in states where it’s legal for adults 21 and over to possess cannabis—by sneaking in one last grand hurrah and hauling a bunch of weed smokers downtown.
After drug “crimes,” what’s the next-highest priority for cops?
It’s not even close: Just shy of 1.1 million people were arrested for assault.
As the Drug Policy Alliance notes, there were three times as many arrests for drug offenses as there were arrests for all violent crimes combined. And as always, drug arrests fell disproportionately on communities of poor people and people of color.
War on Drugs Does Not Reflect the Voice of the People
Didn’t we say we were sick of this shit? Why, yes, we did—there is majority support for decriminalization of drugs even in deep red states like South Carolina. And yet, heavy-handed and unequal policing persists, and cops are still arresting more people for drugs than any other crime.
“Criminalizing drug use has devastated families across the U.S., particularly in communities of color, and for no good reason,” Maria McFarland Sánchez Moreno, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a statement released Monday.
“Far from helping people who are struggling with addiction, the threat of arrest often keeps them from accessing health services and increases the risk of overdose or other harms.”
Almost one-third of the nation’s drug arrests—462,354—were in the South.
It’s no accident that some of the country’s most punitive drug laws are in the South, and that the states to embrace marijuana legalization and medical cannabis tend to be elsewhere, in the West and Northeast.
Unlike in past years, the FBI did not provide detailed drug arrest data, such as which drugs generated the most arrests or whether most arrests were for possession rather than crimes that might have an actual victim.
But there’s little reason to think that there’s been any substantial change in trends from 2015. That year, as in many years before it, the staggering majority of busts involved simple possession, and these were mostly for marijuana.
For example, 43 percent of all arrests in 2015 were for marijuana. Nearly all of these were for marijuana possession. Not sales, not cultivation and not for running an exploding hash oil lab.
Put another way: American cops are still arresting more people for drugs than any other crime. Put yet another, more direct way: You, American taxpayer, are paying to have police arrest you for the very conduct you condone.
It Could Get Even Worse
The biggest problem with all this is that the worst is yet to come. This data is from 2016. All this happened under Barack Obama, who ended his two terms in office with some modest drug policy reforms.
Since they are Barack Obama’s drug-policy reforms, Trump’s people have made clear their desire to heave them thrown out the window. If cops are still arresting more people for drugs than any other crime, and Trump’s administration wants to ramp it up even more, who knows how bad it could get.
Earlier this year, Attorney General Jeff Sessions signaled his preference for federal authorities to start hauling in low-level drug offenders. At the time, the news was greeted as a prelude to disaster, as a great unraveling of all the progress to date. But really, Sessions was just following the cops’ lead.