In 2011, 1 in 25 Americans was arrested

The War on Drugs still accounts for startling arrest rates, borne out in FBI stats

Topics: War on Drugs, Police, stop-and-frisk, FBI, marijuana, arrests, Prison Industrial Complex,

In 2011, 1 in 25 Americans was arrested (Credit: Shutterstock)

According to new statistics released by the FBI, one in 25 Americans was arrested in 2011 (the most recent year for which there are complete statistics). It’s a startling figure, especially considering the fact that most of those arrests can be attributed to America’s ongoing and ill-thought “War on Drugs,” which helps fill prisons and fulfill police arrest quotas.

The highest number of arrests were for drug abuse violations (estimated at 1,531,251 arrests), larceny-theft (estimated at 1,264,986), and driving under the influence (estimated at 1,215,077),” the FBI report notes. Looking at the numbers broken down, however, one can see that marijuana possession alone accounts for a staggering 43.3 percent of drug-related arrests. 

As Radley Balko rightly points out in HuffPo, although not every arrest leads to a charge or a conviction, the effects can still be ruinous:

Arrests can be damaging, even if they never result in criminal charges. They generally go on your criminal record, which can be checked each time you apply for a job, housing, or credit. An arrest can also be a barrier to your ability to adopt, obtain some types of professional licenses, and obtain a visa or passport. And of course an arrest also comes with some social stigma.

When I spoke to CUNY sociologist and marijuana arrest expert Harry Levine for The New Inquiry earlier this year, he stressed the extent to which the vast numbers of marijuana arrests made in the U.S. went without media attention:

The nearly 700,000 marijuana possession arrests a year in the U.S. are the same kind of scandal. They have gone on for years and harmed millions of people, but big city police departments and prominent politicians, including many liberals, keep making the arrests. And until recently they have been remarkably successful at keeping the arrests out of the public eye.

The work of exposing these huge numbers of possession arrests has only just begun, but the facts are startling. In New York City for over 15 years more people have been arrested for marijuana possession than for any other criminal charge whatsoever. One arrest in eight is for simple possession of a small amount of marijuana. That general pattern is true for many other cities and counties.

Levine also emphasized the racist, classist bent of these marijuana arrests, he noted that “police arrest mostly young and low-income people for marijuana possession, 90 percent men, disproportionately young blacks and Latinos.” It is, after all, on the basis of racial discrimination that the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy is currently facing a landmark federal lawsuit.

The FBI stats on total arrests with regards to race are as follows: 69.2 percent of all persons arrested were white, 28.4 percent were black, and the remaining 2.4 percent were of other races. It’s worth considering that black people make up only 13.6 percent of the total U.S. population, but yet nearly 30 percent of those arrested in 2011. Although figures alone could tell many stories, in the context of national outcry over racist police practices and what Harry Levine called a “national scandal” of marijuana arrests, such statistics seem to support a troubling story.


Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email

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