Marijuana Possession Enforcement is Down Dramatically Under President Obama

Contrary to what you may have heard, marijuana possession enforcement is down 30% under President Obama

Marijuana legalization advocates often rest their case on the large absolute number of marijuana simple possession arrests made each year in the U.S. (e.g., over 650,000 in 2011). But number of arrests is just a numerator. If we want to understand the intensity of marijuana possession enforcement in the US, we also need to know the denominator, namely how often Americans consume marijuana.

Americans’ aggregate days of marijuana use for 2002-2011 can be derived from the public use dataset of the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH)*. I combined that information on the denominator with FBI Uniform Crime Reports data on annual marijuana possession arrests over the same period.

Enforcement intensity was fairly consistent in the seven years of data from the George W. Bush Administration, with an average of .30 simple possession arrests for every 1,000 days of marijuana use. The absolute number of marijuana possession arrests over the GWB years went up from 614,000 in 2002 to 754,000 in 2008, which at first blush suggests sharply increasing enforcement intensity. But the number of possession arrests per 1,000 days of use in 2008 (.296) was virtually identical to that of earlier years (e.g., .294 in 2003) because frequency of marijuana use increased by roughly the same amount as did arrests. This is a concrete example of how interpreting numerators without denominators can be misleading.

In addition to noting the consistency of marijuana enforcement intensity during the GWB era, it is worth pondering how low a risk of arrest a rate of .30 per 1,000 use days reflects: If you smoked marijuana once per week, you would expect to be arrested for simple possession once every 64 years.

Matters become even more fascinating under the Obama Administration. As disappointed marijuana legalization advocates complained at the time, the first year of President Obama’s Administration saw an almost identical number of simple possession arrests (758,600) as did the last year of the George W. Bush Administration (754,200). But this represented a significant drop in enforcement intensity because Americans’ marijuana use increased by 10.6% that same year, from 2.55 Billion to 2.82 Billion aggregate days. As a result, in the first year of the Obama Administration, enforcement intensity was already lower than at any point in the GWB data.

During the next two years of the Obama Administration, Americans’ aggregate days of marijuana use continued to rise (This was driven somewhat by an increase in the total number of users, but even moreso by an increase in the size of the subpopulation of users who use every or nearly every day). Meanwhile the number of simple possession arrests actually fell (to 751,000 in 2010 and then 663,000 in 2011). The combination of these two trends produced a steep decrease in the intensity of marijuana enforcement.

The chart below summarizes the data. The baseline “GWB average” is the .30 average rate of marijuana possession arrests per 1,000 days of marijuana use from 2002-2008. For the last available year of Obama era data, 2011, enforcement intensity is down a remarkable 29.7% relative to the standard under the prior administration.


Chart notes: “GWB Average” is based on 2002-2008 because 2001 NSDUH data on drug use are not comparable to subsequent years due to survey design changes. Uniform Crime Report data is on number of arrests, potentially including multiple arrests of the same individual.

*I am very grateful to Dr. Beau Kilmer for helping me understand these data.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans and drugs. He is the author or co-author of numerous books and scholarly articles, and has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, The Guardian (UK), the San Francisco Chronicle and other media outlets. When he is not in the San Francisco Bay Area, he is usually in London, where he is an ad hoc policy adviser to the national and city government, an honorary professor of psychiatry at Kings College, a senior editorial adviser to the journal Addiction, and a member of The Athenaeum. When he is not in the San Francisco Bay Area or London, he is usually in Washington D.C., where he serves as a frequent science and policy advisor to federal agencies, and where he has served previously as an appointee to a White House commission and several Secretarial task forces. From July 2009-2010, he served as Senior Policy Advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. When he is not in the San Francisco Bay Area or London or Washington D.C., he is usually in the Middle East, where since 2004 he has volunteered in the international humanitarian effort to rebuild Iraq’s mental health care system. This work has taken him to Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon to teach and consult with Iraqi health professionals and policy makers.

47 thoughts on “Marijuana Possession Enforcement is Down Dramatically Under President Obama”

  1. Even if the rates are going down, which I question, how ethical is it to throw anyone in jail over Marijuana?

    Here’s a true stat. The US population makes up 5% of the world population. Yet of all the people in prison in the world, 25% are housed by the US. Land of the free?

    Tell me Mr Humphrey’s, Why do we continue to throw people in jail for consensual and victimless crimes?

  2. 1)How many of those arrests were by the Feds, for all years?

    2)Is there any attempt to check and control for over or underreporting trends in the surveys across the years?

    1. The fact that law enforcement is decentralised in the USA, and very often in the hands of Republican state, county and municipal authorities, suggests that cannabis use at least is no longer a mainstream conservative culture war issue – like gay marriage and unlike abortion. It would be easy to check this hypothesis with a detailed geographical breakdown.

  3. Technical questions:

    1) Why should I trust the National Survey on Drug Use and Health for accuracy? What if people just lie more(less) to survey-takers than they used to?
    2) Since the vast majority of MJ possession arrests occur at the local level, why am I supposed to award credit/blame to El Presidente?

    1. Specifically, can you control for the effect that people are more likely to report drug use to an unknown survey-taker if they know that the risk of arrest if the information leaks is down? Reported rapes and spousal abuse have I believe risen in recent decades, but this isn’t taken as proof of rising real incidence, more in a change in expectations of the police response.
      Quite a number of commenters here freely admit to cannabis use. The protection of a commenting alias would not resist a serious criminal investigation. Nobody admits to murder on a blog.

        1. Professor Keith Humphreys,

          I don’t believe that your “denominator” can be accurately measured. Do you have methodological evidence to change my mind? Otherwise I’ll just be over in the corner with the other peasants droning on about “freedom,” “autonomy,” “dignity,” and other such obviously inane and out-dated concepts.

        2. “Rapes reported to the police have been shrinking more slowly than survey-reported rapes, and actually rose from 1979-1990, consistent with other data showing an increasing willingness of victims to report having been raped.”

          That is the exact opposite conclusion they should draw….The cops are getting to some extent less rapes reported, but the other survey-reported rapes are reported less to a greater extent(meaning the delta is greater so much less are actually reported)… meaning that people are less willing to report having been raped. Willingness to report is at the essence of this post. That is the hardest thing to know for sure, whether and to what extent respondents are willing…which is why every one else’s point holds greater weight-> This post is using very questionable data to try and argue that Obama is not so bad– but the thinking that goes into this reasoning is so twisted to not see how even 1 arrested is totally effed.

        3. I stand corrected on the gratifying trend in reported rape. Checking after the event (!) on domestic violence, Wikipedia claims the trend is also down in the USA at any rate. (Lead again?) I shift to a weaker claim that under-reporting is a big issue in both matters, which makes inferring real trends from reported data a bit iffy.

          1. Some analyses of the reductions in domestic violence speak to women simply not being in relationships with men. They’re staying single/uninvolved to reduce their exposure.

  4. Are we simply substituting “possession with intent to distribute” arrests for “simple possession” arrests? It would be nice to see this data side by side.

    1. This is definitely happening in some decriminalization states — no “possession” arrest but instead a PWID arrest for the same small amount, ostensibly because the multiple joints = intent to distribute.

  5. I’m a lawyer in a small southern metropolis. If you want certified horror stories of the actual people (and their families) represented by your co-ordinates, and suffering TODAY the seriously adverse consequences from arrest, prosecution, and imprisonment for simple marijuana possession, I will be happy to cite you the names and docket numbers.

  6. I’m with you, Martin. I am also a lawyer in the South, the Bible Belt, where people are arrested and punished a lot harder for minor marijuana crimes than in many parts of the country. It doesn’t stop anything, of course. But we blow a lot of money and mess up quite a few lives, the few unfortunate enough to get caught.

    I don’t know about the numbers in this article. It was kind of interesting to see where the author estimates that if a person smokes marijuana once a week he can be expected to be arrested once every 64 years. That may be somewhat true. Most people will never get caught. Some are unlucky though, and then we have a small segment of our population that are much more likely than the rest to get caught. Poor people and/or blacks living in rough neighborhoods are far more likely to get caught because their neighborhoods are policed so heavily. How often do guys like us get stopped and searched? Never? For some it’s a fairly regular occurrence. Their chances of getting caught are still much lower than for committing a crime with an actual victim, but much higher than for “rich” people in the suburbs.

    One of the big reasons the prohibition on marijuana will never work, aside from the fact that the cat is out of the bag with pot and it’s way too popular to ban, like alcohol, is that the laws have very little deterrent effect regardless of the severity of the potential punishments because the likelihood of getting caught is so slim. There are no victims to call the police and most witnesses are also smoking it. It doesn’t really matter if all that happens if one gets caught is that he gets a ticket and a small fine, or if he’s looking at an arrest for a serious misdemeanor, if the likelihood of getting caught is slim to none, people don’t worry about it that much. Leave your pot at home for the most part, don’t hang around with criminals, don’t do stupid things likely to bring unwanted attention from the police, and you could probably smoke pot for decades without ever getting caught. People know that, and young people feel invincible anyway. They don’t think they’ll get caught even if they’re the idiots doing things likely to get them caught. Then they get caught and go to jail and too often don’t have bond money to get out, fail to appear at their hearings after the court finally lets them out, fail to pay off their fines or take the classes they’re ordered to take, drive even though their licenses are suspended over these convictions, end up in court (and jail) over and over again over a little pot charge, lose financial aid for college, lose their HUD homes, get their families kicked out of government subsidized housing, lose jobs and foreclose on the possibility of getting a lot of good jobs, etc.

  7. If arrest is a serious event, say, effectively decent-life ending, then an average of once in 64 years per 1-day-a-week habit is enormous. It means a 50-50 chance of being up the creek by age 50. That’s comparable to the odds of being wounded in a war zone.

  8. Many of the comments on a post like this are incredibly frustrating. I don’t really know if that is a solvable problem, but it does deter me from wading into them. Several of the comments are thoughtful and add something to the discussion, but many are just boilerplate.

    The post is about how arrests per use-day is perhaps a more useful figure than raw arrest totals for understanding what is happening with regard to possession arrests. This is certainly an argument that can be criticized. For example, if you believe, as many commenters seem to, that no simple possession arrests are justified, then an increase in total arrests is alarming to you regardless of what percentage of users are affected, and perhaps more important to than the rate since each individual arrest represents an individual injustice, from the perspective of that view. But so many of the comments are not really engaging the argument that is being advanced in the post.

    1. But so many of the comments are not really engaging the argument that is being advanced in the post.

      Welcome to a drug thread. A lot of people who feel passionately about the issue are so insistent about having the argument that they want to have that they are incapable of either responding to the point the poster makes or of even understanding it. To ever disagree with them on any small point means that you obviously hold the most extreme position in opposition to them. That’s true of both sides of this debate, but the pro-legalization side clearly dominates here.

      At this point, whatever Keith and Mark’s intentions are the only effective purpose of posting a drug thread is to troll the commentariat. I really just read through the threads because sometimes comedy ensues.

      1. prognostication and J. Michael Neal: Thanks for these thoughtful comments and for engaging with the subject matter.
        You are correct that pot-related posts at RBC do draw a lot of boilerplate comments, anti-science comments etc. My colleagues who post about evidence on climate change on other websites get the same sort of reaction. I therefore tend on pot posts to skip all those comments not written by people such as yourselves who have a record of writing substantive things.

        Why I keep writing marijuana posts beyond my own interest in policy is that they draw a lot of praise off-line from people who never post comments and who are intelligent, thoughtful shapers of public policy and public discourse, so the payoff is much higher than one might guess for good posts in this area. People who matter think about/engage with/rely on what Mark and I write about drug policy, and that’s makes it worthwhile to turn out high-quality, databased writing in this area.

        1. No offense, but how did either Mr. Progno or Mr. Neal “engage with the subject matter”? They both just castigated other comments as irrelevant.

          My comment was squarely addressed to your “But number of arrests is just a numerator.” Each arrest is also person (with a family). From the individual defendant’s perspective, your database theorizing is as irrelevant and meaningless as the majority of the comments to your post.

          1. Perhaps he wasn’t intending it to have meaning from an individual perspective. This is what I mean by you being incapable of understanding the post as written. Within the very specific context of the question of how aggressively pot laws are being enforced, the number of arrests really is just a numerator. That there are other contexts that you would rather discuss doesn’t change that.

            And so I am not castigating your comment as irrelevant in any general way; there are a number of contexts within which it is extremely relevant. What irritates me is that you are utterly unwilling to step outside your preferred context to the extent that you make a personal attack on anyone who wants to discuss any other context. You can’t seem to grasp that a conversation about an aspect of drug policy is not the only conversation about drug policy and that Keith probably doesn’t have an objection having other conversations but that this is the one he’s trying to have now.

            The level of narrow mindedness on display is really quite extraordinary. And, unlike Keith, I’m kind of a jackass and am perfectly prepared to mention it.

          2. Did you miss the entire second paragraph of my comment, where I suggested how one might frame the argument yourself and others appear to be making in a way that responds to the content of the post? Heck, if you had said something like “each arrest is also [a] person” in your original post, that would have been pretty close to the point I was trying to make, and would have been much clearer than what you actually said. Not that anyone referred to your earlier comment specifically in the first place.

            Anyway, I’m not going to get sucked into a prolonged debate about this.

      2. J. Michael,
        OK, let’s talk facts as you see them.

        At exactly what number greater than zero will arresting people for marijuana prove to be an effective public policy?

        1. At exactly what number greater than zero will arresting people for marijuana prove to be an effective public policy?

          I don’t know and that has exactly nothing to do with Keith’s original post. It might make for an interesting discussion with a different audience, but I’d rather decline the invitation to have it with the folks that populate this thread.

    2. Some of us are denying that “the denominator”– total number of use-days — can be accurately measured. The appearance of precision does not imply accuracy.

      Other objections say that what is being measured is the wrong axis upon which to base a policy.

      Are some people annoyed by posts that implicitly seem to privilege any measurement–accurate or not–over moral reasoning? Yeah. Some of us are not trained in Habermas’s “Discourse Ethics.” But, you know, mass incarceration and militarized police tactics can make some of us just a little– what’s the word? — touchy.

      1. Indeed D. Silver, the discussion comes from two distinct realities. Academicians intrigued by statistical correlations as having intrinsic value to the discussion come from a different place altogether than those at the receiving end of “mass incarceration and militarized police tactics.”

        So… some of us find Keith’s post discussable and others find it irrelevant.

        I will gladly give Keith and Mark this bit of love – thank you for having a website that allows commenting. One of my longtime complaints about those on the prohibition side is that their wwwebsites were closed for discussion, whereas drug policy reform wwwebsites almost all allow/encourage discussion. (Calvina’s cult is notorious for that)

        1. Can you blame Calvina et al for closing comments when, if left open, all they would consist of would be insults and ad hominem attacks?

          1. “all they would consist of would be insults and ad hominem attacks”

            First off that’s both wrong and hyperbolic in the extreme.

            They never “closed comments” because comments were never open.

            Neither side is blameless in the insult department. I have been one among many on the legalization/anti-prohibition side that has for years urged and demonstrated civil discussion in online forums.

            I’ll provide you another example, one of which I’d wager Keith is clearly aware. Our nation’s drug kzar exists in a vacuum. His whole existence as a government employee is scripted. He doesn’t ever get challenged (or interviewed) by reporters. Ever try commenting on the ONDCP website?

            It’s a shame the original website from John Kerry’s presidential run was never saved. We kept drug policy at the top of the discussion and because the site was moderated the discussion was kept civil (sometimes to the nth degree).

            As Dwight Holton found out in Oregon, it isn’t wise to piss off the reform community if you have political ambitions. Kerry’s chances would have improved dramatically had he even given drug policy a wink and a nod.

      2. Denying it on what basis? Do you have any basis? If your objection is just that you believe a significant number of people would systematically fail to tell the truth on a survey in a way that would bias its outcome, then you need a little bit more than conjecture. Survey methodologies for large national surveys are pretty sophisticated, and there are plenty of studies out there that suggest that you can get people to tell the truth about very personal information given proper attention to methodology and design.

  9. While the percentage of arrests for mere possession may be going down incrementally the actual numbers are still unconscionably high……..hundreds of thousands. And, since the movement towards some sort of decriminalization nationwide is irrefutable, why doesn’t the federal government declare a moratorium on arrests for personal use possession while the states work this out?

    I agree with the previous posters that any arrests at this time would indicate an intransient, almost sadistic, display of bureaucratic pique.

  10. My first thought was: Keith is going to get rammed for this by Mark’s pro-druggie cult following.

    And I was right.

    1. Really? Pro-druggie? Sorry mate, that’s weak. And it is sooo ’90s (the drug policy equivalent of polyester bell bottoms, wild shirts w/ flared collars and white belts).

      Please, let me direct you to the organization Law Enforcement Against Prohibition,

      Now, find any one of LEAP’s speakers that advocate using drugs. For that matter, I have yet to see any commenter here advocating people use drugs. if you want “pro-druggies” watch the pharma ads on TV. Under the current dominant medical system, drugs are the be-all and end-all of “treatment.” For example, watch the commercial for Axiron®… 15 seconds on what the drug is for, 45 seconds on the negative side effects. And… while you’re watching, notice what’s going on in the background when they are giving the negative side effects.

  11. “Oh sure, in absolute terms, Obama continues to allow the idiocy of cannabis prohibition to destroy countless innocent lives and waste law enforcement and judicial resources on a scale that is truly mind-boggling. But, when viewed in relative terms with respect to all the waste and destruction that could be occurring (as represented by this absurd ratio that I just made up), there’s actually been a slight improvement under Obama’s watch.”

    Hope and change!

    1. The good people of America in 2010 say fit to return the Republican Party to control of the House. And there it stayed after 2012. I’m not seeing a lot of proposals from the Republican caucus to remove cannabis from federal regulation. I’m not seeing Obama vetoing any bills to liberalize drug laws. Maybe you know about vetoes the rest of us don’t know about.

  12. No, he’s noting that enforcement has declined. Arrests remain high because use and population increased, but that should not be confused with a general increase in the incident of enforcement.
    His noting of this statistic has led to a lot of crying of ‘shame’ and ‘freedom.’ It should not be directed against the author of the post, though. These laws do not exist due to bureaucratic pique, or skulduggery by the executive. The laws exist because we, the good people of America, previously demanded that the demon weed be criminalized, with penalties vigorously enforced. Two states out of 50 have stepped back in the last 6 months. But the good people of 48 states (including California, which voted against legalization at the polls just a few years ago) still declare it to be a crime against the state, and the user an enemy of the people.
    “The most dangerous enemy of the truth and freedom amongst us is the compact majority”
    ― Henrik Ibsen, An Enemy of the People

  13. Stories appeared recently at Alternet about increases in marijuana use by aging baby boomers resuming their recreational pot use as retirees. People 60 and older aren’t as likely to be caught using marijuana compared to a typical, reckless 18-year-old who might be more careless, Obama notwithstanding. Plus, adults usually have a private place to smoke in peace, a place that doesn’t include their van. Retiree uptake would produce these results, but are only part of it.

    The statistics don’t mean Obama has anything to do with simple arrests for marijuana possession. States, counties, and municipal governments are the major instigators of minor pot busts. The feds deal with interstate and international drug enforcement, bigger stuff, usually.

    The reduction in marijuana arrests is the product of citizen activism that has targeted unfair legal sanctions at the local and state levels. The possession laws and people’s attitudes are changing. I know of nothing Obama has done to reduce drug arrests, marijuana or otherwise.

  14. Mr. Humphreys, you’ve made a possibly interesting point, but there’s some other point that I’d rather you’d made instead. I feel justified, therefore, in blaming you for the prohibition regime that’s been created and maintained with overwhelming public support for some decades now. Shame on you.

    1. I alone possess the true insight to interpret Mr. Humphreys’ blog post, and everyone else has misunderstood him. I feel justified, therefore, in mocking everyone else’s interpretation with cheap adolescent sarcasm.

      1. Oh come on. What’s with this angry pigpile on the poor guy? He makes a fairly straightforward and not all that significant observation about how arrest numbers ought to be scaled by the arrestable population (about as controversial as looking at, say, murder rates per capita rather than as raw numbers) and everyone flips out because…why? Maybe they sense that he’s not entirely on side? Or something?

        I’m as anti-prohibition as the next guy and then some, but I’m just embarrassed at the behavior of my fellow travelers here. This is obnoxious.

        1. “He’s trying to give credit to President Obama for a state/local matter.”

          I can see how that could reasonably strike someone as weak. On the other hand, we all know that when the state and local drug cops drive fast, it’s in large part because the feds have got their foot on the gas. The massive federal drug enforcement grants drive a lot of state and local enforcement, and I wouldn’t be surprised if various federal agencies play a huge role in allocating asset forfeiture money to state and local agnencies as well. Radley Balko in particular is all over this federal incentive stuff. If we’re going to blame the feds for the creeping militarization of state and local police forces driven in large part by drug enforcement incentives, then it’s not crazy to suppoose that when the locals efforts are slacking off that it could be in part because the feds are changing their incentives around.

          “His pretension to knowledge about aggregate number of “use-days” is, not to put too fine a point on it, fucking hilarious.”

          If NSDUH is a bogus source and scholars who cite it should expect to be mocked for this, it’s news to me, but it would be since I’m just some amateur who pays a small amount of attention to prohibition. Is citing NSDUH a howler on the order of, say, citing Heritage Foundation or something? What are the issues with their data or methodology?

  15. “Americans’ aggregate days of marijuana use for 2002-2011 can be derived from the public use dataset of the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH)*.

    Probably they cannot be so derived unless you posit a stable willingness to respond over that period. I strongly suspect that any reduction in enforcement is swamped by an I creased willingness to talk about and admit to marijuana use in that period.

  16. I’m sure the pre-Lawrence arrest rate for sodomy was even lower. That did not justify laws criminalizing sodomy.

    1. Yeah, that whole section where Mr. Humphreys is justifying the current prohibition regime was really unfortunate. I’d like to quote it in a letter I’m sending to a friend. Could you give me a hand? Where was it again? I know it was there because everyone’s talking about it, but just now I can’t find it.

      1. If the point of Mr. Humphreys’s post was anything other than, “Marijuana criminalization is as bad as its opponents claim”, I’m at a complete loss as to what it is.

        If you think that everyone is misreading you, then perhaps you should consider the possibility that you have miswritten.

        1. Cool, thanks. That’s exactly the sort of thing I was looking for. Which paragraph was that in again?

  17. Well I’ve read this piece three times and
    i have difficulty understanding exactly what it’s driving at. 1) More people are smoking more dope, but arrests have not picked up in the same percentage of that increase. 2). This change has taken place in the last five years, I.e. the Obama presidency. 3). What conclusions are we to draw from this set of correlations? It’s Obama’s doing or the state and local police are backing off or the increase in dope usage has not brought about a commensurate build up of enforcement or there is no relevant point to this. Because as your statistics lead you to believe fewer arrests are being made per user hour/ day/whatever, is that good or bad with regard to legalization/prohibition arguments? Or is this just stuff to talk about?

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