San Diego Union Tribune

November 15, 2005

Arrests soaring amid concerted police effort

By Joe Cantlupe

WASHINGTON – More people were arrested for marijuana offenses last year than at any time in U.S. history.

More than 770,000 people were cited for marijuana-related violations in 2004, according to the FBI's latest annual uniform crime report. Almost 90 percent of them were charged only with possession.

Federal officials said the local police actions reflect the importance of waging a fight against marijuana as part of the overall war on drugs. The FBI report showed that marijuana arrests have more than doubled over the past 12 years.

"We think the use of marijuana is consequential, and there is a health impact for the users," said David Murray, drug policy analyst for the White House Office of Drug Control Policy. "We are saying, 'This is a risk you are taking' if you use marijuana. It's a public health problem."

The increased arrests have prompted widespread criticism from groups seeking to relax marijuana laws.

"This effort is a tremendous waste of criminal justice resources that diverts law enforcement personnel away from focusing on serious and violent crime," said Allen Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).


Drug arrests nationwide
Even as the number of arrests is rising, people in some parts of the country are sending mixed messages about how they want to enforce laws restricting marijuana use.

Last Tuesday, Denver became the first city in the nation to eliminate criminal and civil penalties for adults possessing a small amount of marijuana. Oakland voters last year directed their officials to make marijuana arrests the lowest city priority.

In San Diego, the controversy has revolved around the use of marijuana for medical purposes.

In 1996, California voters approved the use of marijuana for patients who have a doctor's recommendation, despite the fact that federal law prohibits marijuana use under any circumstance. The result has been a confusing pattern of enforcement. Federal agents still make arrests in California, while cities and counties either follow the state law or the federal mandate.

In San Diego County, the Board of Supervisors recently refused to follow a provision of the state law and issue identification cards that would help medical marijuana users avoid arrest. Last week, they went a step further and said they will file a lawsuit to challenge the state law.

The supervisors spoke about their objections to marijuana.

"Marijuana is not beneficial," Supervisor Bill Horn said. "It's dangerous and addictive."

"Frankly, I don't see any difference in the ID card and the handing out of marijuana," Supervisor Dianne Jacob said. "The evidence is overwhelming. Marijuana is addictive; it's a gateway drug that leads to use of harder drugs."

The supervisors voted against the identification cards even after being criticized earlier this year by the San Diego County grand jury. The jury's report said the supervisors had ignored the will of California voters and should take "all possible action" to promote access to marijuana for seriously ill patients.

The FBI's annual uniform crime report doesn't give state-by-state breakdowns for marijuana arrests. But other studies based on federal figures show that in California arrests linked to simple possession or sale rose from 21,000 in 1990 to 48,000 in 2003.

In San Diego County, there has been a 20 percent increase in marijuana arrests over the past decade, according to the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based group that seeks alternatives to incarceration.

"We're seeing a lot of marijuana, and a lot of seizures and arrests," said Lt. Richard Rotha, commander of the San Diego Police Department narcotics enforcement unit. "It's probably the most available of any of the illicit drugs. It's pretty consistent."

The rise in marijuana arrests can be linked to a concerted effort by many local police agencies, encouraged by the White House, to target the illicit substance. The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy has spent billions of dollars over the years on educational campaigns, some specifically targeting marijuana.

Within the past month, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy awarded $17.1 million in matching grants to support coalitions to establish drug-monitoring programs for youths and $7.2 million to implement random drug-testing programs.

In addition, the federal office has launched ad campaigns specifically targeting marijuana. One ad focusing on parents says, "Marijuana could threaten your teen's success."

Despite the uptick in enforcement, marijuana use has declined only slightly since 1997, according to federal data analyzed by the Washington-based Marijuana Policy Project, which seeks to reduce marijuana penalties. Marijuana availability and daily marijuana use among 12th graders, for example, was the same as in 1975, despite a tripling of the arrests since the 1980s, according to the Policy Project and other groups working to legalize marijuana.

"Present policies have done little if anything to decrease marijuana's availability or dissuade youth from trying it," said Pierre, the executive director of NORML. He said a majority of young people in the United States now report having easier access to pot than to alcohol or tobacco.

White House officials said their anti-marijuana campaigns are paying off, noting that only 12 percent of the drug arrests in the latest report were of people under age 18.

"We believe it has been one of the most effective and valuable media campaigns," said Murray of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, referring to a recent ad campaign targeting marijuana use. "It brings out the risk of marijuana and the sense of responsibility needed and prevents them from getting into trouble."

Overall, marijuana use declined by 7 percent among young adults between 18 and 25 from 2002 to 2004, according to last year's federal National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

Those figures are a strong indication that marijuana arrests eventually might decrease in coming years, Murray said.

Although there were more arrests of marijuana users last year than ever before, Murray said population increases in the United States suggest that the numbers have generally "stabilized over the years."

But Bruce Mirken, director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project, said the administration is trying to use law-enforcement to do too much of the job against illicit drug use.

"If the goal is to reduce marijuana use, there's no solid evidence that we can arrest our way out of the problem," Mirken said.

The FBI report said marijuana represented 44.2 percent of all drug arrests in 2004, compared with 28 percent in 1993.

Other studies have also shown that marijuana arrests have overshadowed other drug arrests over the past decade, including arrests for methamphetamine, which ranks just behind marijuana as the drug of choice in San Diego County and many other parts of the country.

A May study of FBI data showed that the proportion of heroin and cocaine cases plummeted from 55 percent of all drug arrests in 1992 to less than 30 percent 10 years later, according to the Sentencing Project. Neither the Sentencing Project study nor the FBI report offered a breakdown of methamphetamine arrests.

Drug-use reports show that marijuana remains, by far, the most commonly used drug. While more than 12 million people age 12 and older reported using methamphetamine at least once, at least 96.8 million people in the same category reported trying marijuana at least once, the White House Office of Drug Control Policy said.

Staff writer Leslie Wolf Branscomb contributed to this report.

Joe Cantlupe: (202) 737-7687;

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