What would cops do without weed? For one thing, they'd sure spend a lot less time arresting and processing petty pot violators. How much time? For starters, however long it took to bust the estimated 739,000 Americans arrested for minor pot possession in 2006.
That's according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Report, which reported last week that a record 829,625 Americans were arrested for violating marijuana laws last year. Of those arrested, 89 percent of those were charged with simple pot possession -- the highest annual total ever recorded and nearly three times the number of citizens busted 15 years ago.
Yet to hear local law enforcement spin it, busting small-time potheads isn't their priority. The record number of busts, they claim, is simply a reflection that record numbers of Americans are now smoking pot.
But don't tell Drug Czar John Walters that. After all, the czar just claimed earlier this month -- at a press conference announcing the release of the federal Office of Applied Studies (OAS) 2006 National Survey on Drug Use and Health -- that pot use has been declining for the better part of the past five years.
Predictably, both the cops and the drug czar are playing fast and loose with the facts. Yes, in fact more Americans are now admittedly consuming pot today than in 1991 (so much for the past 15 years of the so-called "war on drugs"), but this increase is hardly proportional to the dramatic spike in overall pot arrests.
As for Walter's comments, while the survey did indeed report a minor decline in adolescents' self-reported use of pot, it further reported a minor uptick in the total number of Americans who report using marijuana regularly, from 14.6 million in 2005 to 14.8 million in 2006.
Of course, a less than 2 percent increase in pot users from '05 to '06 doesn't explain why pot arrests jumped more than five percent from a then-record 786,545 to today's total. Or why the overall number of annual pot arrests has gone up every consecutive year but two for the past 16 years.
Perhaps the explanation is two-fold. It's plausible that the federal government is -- and always has -- greatly underestimated the number of Americans who use pot. (Does anyone really believe that cops are busting -- on average -- five percent of all pot smokers each year?) It's also plausible that an outgrowth of the ever-growing number of cops on the street (and citizens' increasing number of interactions with them) is inevitably leading to more and more pot arrests. However, regardless of the explanation, it seems remiss for police and politicians not to acknowledge this growing trend and its burdensome fiscal and perhaps even cultural implications.
The bottom line: Since 1990 over 10.4 million Americans -- predominantly young people under age 30 -- have been busted for pot. Thousands have been disenfranchised, tens of thousands have been unnecessarily sent to "drug treatment," hundreds of thousands have lost their eligibility for student aid, and perhaps an entire generation (or two) has been alienated to believe that the police are an instrument of their oppression rather than their protection. These are the tangible results of the government's stepped up war on pot -- results that go beyond the FBI's record numbers, and it's high time that politicians and the general public began taking notice.
Paul Armentano is the senior policy analyst for the NORML Foundation in Washington, D.C.