Despite marijuana legalization’s recent avalanche of support from politicians, particularly Democratic presidential nominees, the War on Drugs continues in most of the country. Yes, although cannabis is legal for adult use in 10 states plus Washington D.C., marijuana possession is still a crime in the United States. In fact, marijuana possession led to almost 6 percent of all arrests in 2017, according to FBI data.
But, as The Washington Post first reported, that number “obscures the considerable variations in enforcement practices at the state and local levels.” According to data from The National Archive of Criminal Justice Data, marijuana possession accounted for 20 percent of arrests in various places throughout the country. And in several counties, that number passed 40 percent while one Georgia county claimed almost 55 percent of its arrest from possession.
“While drug war proponents often say they’re going after kingpins, the reality is that the police nearly always goes after the lowest-hanging fruit: people who use drugs—especially marijuana, which is easy to find—or bit players in the drug trade,” said Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, told the Washington Post.
Here is a short list of the counties with the highest percentages of marijuana enforcement in total amount of arrests (data as of 2016):
- Dooley County, Georgia: 54.5%
- Hamilton County, New York: 43.5%
- Sterling County, Texas: 42.1%
- Hartley County, Texas: 42%
- Edmunds County, South Dakota: 33.3%
Although the Post mentions most of these counties are found in rural areas, significant figures in marijuana-related arrests can still be found in urban counties. Chesapeake, Virginia had almost 3,600 arrests in 2016. But almost 23 percent of those arrests were because of marijuana possession. More populated counties also maintain high arrest rates for cannabis. Maryland’s Montgomery County (pop.: 1 million), which is located outside Washington D.C. (where weed is legal), made 20 percent of its 24,000 arrests due to cannabis.
“The status quo allows law enforcement and their associations to profit in many ways,” said Diane Goldstein, a Law Enforcement Action Partnership board member, a group advocating to reduce the severity of cannabis laws. “Marijuana continues to be an easy way to create probable cause for searches, arrests and civil asset forfeiture.”