The number of arrests for marijuana possession made by law enforcement agencies nationwide increased in 2014 for the first time in five years despite recreational use of the drug becoming legal in two states last year.
The new numbers, released by the FBI on Monday, brought a sharp reaction from groups that have been pushing for legalized recreational pot use in state campaigns across the country.
Tom Angell, chairman of the Marijuana Majority, called the overall increase “jarring,” but said that with increased legalization of recreational use of the drug in several states, he expects the arrest totals to drop in the coming years.
“But at a time when a growing majority of Americans support legalizing marijuana, it’s amazing that police are still putting more people in handcuffs for this,” Mr. Angell said.
“There’s just no good reason that so much police time and taxpayer money is spent punishing people for marijuana when so many murders, rapes and robberies go unsolved,” he added.
Some marijuana advocates admitted they had not expected to see a U-turn in the arrest figures for 2014.
“It’s surprising to see the total number of arrests go up, especially the number of possession arrests,” said Dan Riffle, director of federal policies at the Marijuana Policy Project, which advocates for legalization. “That’s the first time since 2009 that we’ve seen it go up.”
National crime data released by the FBI found that approximately 620,000 people were arrested for simple marijuana possession in 2014, an increase of about 11,000, or 1.8 percent, over the prior year. The number of arrests for marijuana possession peaked during the last decade in 2007, at approximately 775,000. Other than a slight uptick in 2009, the number of arrests for marijuana possession has been on the decline ever since.
The increase in arrests for marijuana possession last year came as the drug was legalized in both Colorado and Washington. That same year, voters in the District, Oregon and Alaska voted to legalize recreational use of the drug, though the new laws did not take effect until this year.
Marijuana possession arrests made up 39.7 percent of the 1,561,231 drug abuse violation arrests that law enforcement nationwide reported to the FBI as part of its annual report. In 2013 marijuana possession accounted for 40.6 percent of the 1,501,043 drug abuse arrests — or approximately 609,000 arrests.
Another 5.2 percent, or approximately 81,000 arrests, were made for marijuana sale or manufacturing.
The FBI data show that drug abuse arrests were up in both Colorado and Washington in 2014 compared to 2013, but the data do not indicate whether that was due to an uptick in arrests for marijuana possession or for other drug crimes.
Analysts say voters in as many as seven states may face ballot questions on decriminalizing marijuana possession or legalizing recreational use in 2016: California, Hawaii, Arizona, Massachusetts, Missouri, Maine and Nevada.