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The number of people arrested in the United States for violating cannabis-related laws is declining every year as legalization expands across the country.
In 2020, police made an estimated 318,986 arrests nationwide for marijuana-related violations, representing a year-over-year decrease of 23%, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report UCR). A decade ago, that number exceeded 650,000.
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Is the FBI’s system flawed?
Even though the report, which includes data from over 18,000 jurisdictions and the types of arrests made annually, some are casting doubt on the system, reported Marijuana Moment.
It seems that an issue has arisen around the interpretation of FBI reporting guidelines by local law enforcement agencies, resulting in inflated cannabis arrest data reported through the UCR.
For example, the Maryland State Police (MSP) still reports the issuance of fines for possession of up to 10 grams of cannabis as an arrest, even though it is a civil infraction and not punishable by arrest or incarceration.
“The Maryland UCR Program follows the National UCR Program guidelines when reporting crime data to the National Program,” an MSP spokesperson told Marijuana Moment. “If a civil citation is issued for marijuana, then for UCR purposes, it is cited as an arrest.”
On the other hand, Baltimore is apparently using a different reporting system that reflects fewer cannabis arrests recorded since 2014, when Maryland decriminalized marijuana.
While state lawmakers continue to push for marijuana legalization, Eric Sterling, an attorney who serves as an appointed member of the Montgomery County, Maryland Policing Advisory Commission is determined to get to the bottom of the problem.
To that end, he sent a letter to the Justice Department’s Inspector General, requesting an investigation of “wasteful misconduct” by the FBI. In the letter, he noted that the FBI requires police departments to “wrongfully and inaccurately characterize important law enforcement data, and to publish false and misleading data about a very large and important class of police activity, arrests for marijuana violations.”
It seems that instructions in the FBI’s National Incident-Based Reporting System manual are unclear as it requires jurisdictions to report “violation of laws prohibiting the production, distribution, and/or use of certain controlled substances and the equipment or devices utilized in their preparation and/or use.”
However, the manual does not make a distinction between civil violations and criminal arrests.
The MSP justifies its own interpretation by stating that cannabis is still not legal in Maryland, but only decriminalized and therefore still carries penalties, thus requiring any offense “to be reported in a Group A Incident Report as an arrest for a drug/narcotic violation.”
Holly Morris, a public affairs specialist at the FBI, told Marijuana Moment that there is a section within the guidance that addresses the three distinct types of arrests that agencies are obliged to report, and that includes citations.