FBI Report Says 3 In 10 Drug Arrests Are For Marijuana, But Agency’s Inconsistent Data Hinders Policy Analysis

FBI Report Says 3 In 10 Drug Arrests Are For Marijuana, But Agency’s Inconsistent Data Hinders Policy Analysis

Arrests for marijuana made up nearly a third of all drug arrests in the United States in 2022, according to a newly released report from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). As with last year’s report, however, inconsistencies in the data and recent changes to the agency’s methodology make it difficult to draw year-to-year comparisons or meaningful conclusions about cannabis and broader drug enforcement trends.

The data, according to FBI, comes from more than 11 million criminal offenses reported to the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program, which is submitted by 13,293 law enforcement agencies and 2,431 other agencies whose jurisdictions comprise more than 90 percent of the country’s population.

“Of the 18,884 state, county, city, university and college, and tribal agencies eligible to participate in the UCR Program, 15,724 agencies submitted data in 2022,” the bureau said in a press release about its annual 2022 Crime in the Nation statistics.

Because not all agencies provide data for the complete reporting periods, FBI explains in a methodology section of its website, the bureau calculates estimated crime numbers, essentially extrapolating “by following a standard estimation procedure using the data provided.” In terms of total reported arrests for “drug abuse violations,” for example, FBI said there were 766,595 arrests. The estimated number of arrests for drug abuse violations, by contrast, is 907,958.

Those numbers, however, aren’t consistent throughout the FBI report. In a section on arrests by region, FBI said there were 726,746 total drug arrests in 2022—nearly 40,000 fewer than its top-level number. In an analysis of  historical trends, meanwhile, FBI reported just 633,576 drug arrests in 2022. A section on racial breakdowns says there were 714,442 drug abuse violations.

Other sections list “drug/narcotic offenses” for the year at 1,459,460, the number of arrestees for drug/narcotic offenses at 787,347 and the total number of drug/narcotics offenders at 1,755,788. The agency further said there were 902,482 crimes involving a person’s suspected use of drugs other than alcohol in 2022.

FBI’s press office did not immediately respond to an email from Marijuana Moment requesting clarification on the conflicting numbers.

Using the agency’s estimated numbers, the 907,958 arrests for drug use violations account for about 12 percent of the nearly 7.4 million estimated arrests nationwide in 2022, according to one section of the report. (Looking back to 2020, the final year that the agency used its prior methodology, there were 1,155,610 estimated drug-related arrests.)

Of all total drug-related arrests in the new report, FBI said, 27 percent were for marijuana possession—more than for possession of any other listed substance. Arrests for selling or manufacturing cannabis, meanwhile, made up 2.5 percent of total drug arrests.

According to the data, 245,149 estimated arrests occurred for marijuana possession and another 22,699 estimated arrests were for cannabis sales or manufacturing in 2022. The numbers differ somewhat from another section of the FBI report that says there were 208,192 arrests for marijuana possession and 18,916 for cannabis sales last year.

In terms of controlled substances seized in 2022, there were 435,333 marijuana seizures out of 992,506 total drug seizures, representing about 44 percent of actions.

One tab of the FBI report discusses trends over time, showing that there were 1,076,547 drug offenses charged in 2013 and 633,576 drug offenses charged in 2022—a reduction of about 41 percent, though it’s not clear how much of the change is due to the agency’s new methodology for reporting arrests.

Arrests of Black people made up about 27 percent of drug arrests in 2022, FBI reported—a disproportionate number given that, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 13.6 percent of Americans are Black. Meanwhile, nearly 70 percent of drug arrests were of white people, 1.6 percent were people who identified as American Indian or Alaska Native, about 1 percent were Asian American and about 0.2 percent were Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander.

Paul Armentano, deputy director of the advocacy group NORML, said the data clearly show a decline in the total number of marijuana arrests over time, but he called it “discouraging that there still remains significant gaps in the available information.”

“At a time when voters and their elected officials nationwide are re-evaluating state and federal marijuana policies, it is inconceivable that government agencies are unable to produce more explicit data on the estimated costs and scope of marijuana prohibition in America,” he said.

FBI’s arrest data is widely relied on by lawmakers, researchers and media to understand and contextualize law enforcement trends. Any inconsistencies influence not just the public’s understanding of crime and law enforcement, but also potentially how policy is crafted and implemented.

“Even from this incomplete data set, it remains clear that marijuana seizures and prosecutions remain a primary driver of drug war enforcement in the United States,” Armentano said. “Hundreds of thousands of Americans continue to be arrested annually for these violations even though a majority of voters no longer believe that the responsible use of marijuana by adults should be a crime.”

Apparent errors in FBI marijuana were pointed out to the bureau in May 2022, when a longtime drug reformer and former congressional staffer, Eric Sterling, claimed to have discovered that a Maryland police department was reporting cannabis possession citations issued under the state’s decriminalization law at the time as arrests as part of a data-sharing partnership with FBI.

Since other state and local law enforcement agencies appear to not be reporting cannabis citations as arrests, Sterling reasoned, the inconsistent practice could significantly alter FBI’s annual reports—making it harder to draw reasonable policy conclusions from the data.

This past August—about 14 months after Sterling sent the inquiry—the office finally replied. Rather than address the apparent problem, however, the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Office of the Inspector General’s investigations division said it had “determined that the matters that you raised are more appropriate for review by another office within the DOJ” and referred the inquiry to FBI’s own inspection division.

The delay, Sterling told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview at the time, suggests DOJ’s own investigators are “overwhelmed and not able to process the incoming complaints in any kind of timely manner, and the ability to respond to much more serious instances of misconduct is compromised.”

A spokesperson for DOJ’s Office of the Inspector General declined to comment at that time, referring Marijuana Moment “to the FBI for any further questions on this topic.” FBI did not provide comment.

FBI’s cannabis enforcement reporting is also compromised by the fact that local and state police are not required to share data to inform the agency’s annual report, meaning it offers an incomplete overview of national law enforcement activities. The agency itself says that certain data may not be comparable to previous years because of different levels of participation over time.

Questions about the accuracy of FBI’s reporting notwithstanding, recent trends are still generally consistent with expectations, with the agency showing cannabis arrests declining in recent years as more states have moved to enact legalization.

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) also says it made fewer marijuana arrests in 2022, even as the number of cannabis plants eradicated by the agency grew.

Federal data from Customs and Border Protection (CBP) released in January indicate that cannabis seizures fell to a record low in Fiscal Year 2022.

report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released last year also paints a clearer picture of who is getting caught up in enforcement activities. At checkpoints across the country, agents are mostly seizing small amounts of marijuana from American citizens rather than busting large shipments from international cartels.

Also consistent with other studies and federal reports, last year’s analysis showed a significant decline in cannabis seizures at checkpoints overall since 2016. Border Patrol seized 70,058 pounds of marijuana at checkpoints in 2016 compared to just 30,828 pounds in 2020.

In another report from last year, the Congressional Research Service said that state-level legalization, combined with international reform efforts, has reduced demand for illicit marijuana from Mexico. Congressional lawmakers have also recently cited the impact of legalization on transnational drug cartel operations.

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