Record High in Marijuana Arrests Gives Life to Old Debate on Legalization

New statistics have been released by the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI concerning crime in the United States in 2007. Since 1996, local and state law enforcement agencies have been reporting arrest records to an FBI program called the Uniform Crime Reporting program, giving us a fairly accurate portrait over the last decade of trends in property and violent crimes, as well as officers killed and hate crimes.

Out of all the statistics that bear examination, the records of drug arrests are perhaps the most intriguing and controversial. Total drug arrests were around 1.8 million. Within that figure, marijuana arrests made up almost half of total drug arrests, with around 873,000 arrested on marijuana charges. Unsurprisingly, a vast majority, 775,000 or 89%, were for simple possession. In total, marijuana arrests are up 167% since 1990, and have increased in each of the last five years.

A table at shows a shocking stat: 99.6 marijuana arrests are made every hour in the U.S.

So what to do about these disturbing trends? Two recent columns, one by Libertarian presidential candidate Bob Barr and Seattle-based columnist Shirley Skeel, recognize the problem but offer differing solutions.

Barr’s column at the Huffington Post> begins from the position of a converted drug warrior: Barr was Anti-Drug Coordinator for the United States Department of Justice and, while a Republican Senator from Georgia, was a huge proponent of the War on Drugs and a vocal opponent of medical marijuana. Barr claims this early fervent support for harsh drug laws gives him a unique perspective from which to criticize the War on Drugs and its failures.

In addition to the immense amounts of money that is “wasted” on law enforcement efforts to arrest individuals for simple drug possession as well as the expenses required to imprison hundreds of thousands, Barr argues against branding those convicted of a drug crime with a “scarlet letter P for prison.” Those convicted of a felony can lose future job opportunities and the ability to run for political office.

If elected president, Barr claims, he would unravel federal control of drug laws and give authority to states to set their own legal and enforcement measures. He would also commute sentences of non-violent drug offenders in order to clear prison space and stop using criminal law to try to correct “a moral, spiritual, and health problem.”

Shirley Skeel takes a slightly different tack, though she agrees with many of the assertions that Barr makes in his column. She tries to imagine the answer to one simple question: “But what if we legalized all street drugs?” She admits that the dangers of increasing the number of drug addicts would be real. But looking from a purely financial standpoint, there’s some cause to believe that we’d be better off in such a world.

If just marijuana were legalized, enforcement agencies would save between $2-10 billion per year in expenses; productivity in the job market would increase as fewer people were murdered, prevented from taking jobs due to drug convictions, or spending their working hours with their criminal defense attorneys; the government could make up to $6 billion per year in taxes; and jobs, retail stores, farms and other business entities would spring up to meet the demand of a legal marijuana industry.

As drug arrests continue to rise, especially involving marijuana, both of these arguments are worth considering seriously. Making hypothetical scenarios work in the real world would take a lot of effort and a lot of compromise, but the basic premise shared by these two writers – that what we’re doing now is very expensive and isn’t working – could very well provide the basis for real reform in the future.