Police Keep Arresting People For Drugs Even As Incarceration Rates Drop, Pew Study Finds – Marijuana Moment

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Even as states have adopted less punitive drug policies—with an emphasis on treatment over incarceration—police have continued to arrest people for illegal substances at a steady rate, a new analysis from the Pew Charitable Trust found.
The report details several interesting trends in drug policy and enforcement that developed from 2009 to 2019. Researchers identified “divergent enforcement trends—high rates of arrest but substantially reduced incarceration—coupled with a lack of treatment options and high mortality rates among people with illicit drug dependence.”
There are a few data points that advocates are encouraged by: lower rates of incarceration, fewer arrests over cannabis as more states have adopted legalization laws and reduced racial disparities in drug enforcement overall, for example.
But while local, state and federal policies have shifted over past couple decades—and more prosecutors being encouraged, or proactively taking steps, to not criminalize people over substance-related issues, police evidently aren’t getting the message.
“Drug possession arrests held steady at more than a million a year, in stark contrast with a large reduction in overall arrests, which dropped 29 percent,” Pew said.
Arrests for drug possession barely changed between 2009 and 2019, even as arrests overall plummeted by over a 1/4.
Yet, the number of arrests for drug sales/manufacturing—and of people admitted to and held in prison for drug offenses—all fell by roughly a 1/3 at the same time. pic.twitter.com/O5gYCun8TZ
— Pew States (@PewStates) February 15, 2022

And while marijuana-related arrests have declined, there’s been a significant uptick in arrests of primarily white people over methamphetamine.
Meanwhile, the “numbers of people admitted to and held in state prisons for drug offenses both fell by about a third” over the years studied, “accounting for 61 percent of the overall reduction in prison populations and 38 percent of the total decline in admissions.”
So, what's driving this stagnation in drug possession arrests?
Look to methamphetamine, for which possession arrests virtually doubled from 2009 to 2019.
Conversely, arrests for marijuana plummeted during the same time. pic.twitter.com/uRhxxHN7wk
— Pew States (@PewStates) February 15, 2022

“The decline in the number of Black people incarcerated for drug offenses made up 26 percent of the decrease in prison admissions and 48 percent of the drop in the prison population,” Pew found.
But there are other, troubling revelations from the analysis: for instance, while incarceration rates have steadily deadlined, drug- and alcohol-related mortality in prisons and jails increased by five and three times, respectfully, over the time period that was investigated.
“These trends indicate both an ongoing reliance on the criminal legal system to address drug misuse and that this strategy is costly and ineffective,” the research institute said. “Meaningful reductions in total drug arrests and drug-related deaths may not be achieved without shifting to a public health response that prioritizes evidence-based treatment approaches.”
Interestingly, arrests over drug sales fell by about one-third from 2009 to 2019—but possession arrests remained remarkably stable, dropping by just under half of one percent during the same timeframe.
“More than 1.5 million people were arrested in 2019 for drug offenses, more than any other crime category, accounting for 1 in 10 arrests nationwide. Property crime, simple assault, and driving under the influence all saw just over a million arrests each—roughly two-thirds the number of drug possession arrests. The number of arrests for violent crimes was only a third that of drug offenses.”
Pew’s report doesn’t discuss policy changes that may have contributed to the decreased racial disparity in drug arrests over the decade studies. But what is known is that black people have been specifically and disproportionately impacted by marijuana criminalization, and states have been liberalizing laws around cannabis over recent years, many with a specific focus on addressing that enforcement disparity.
As marijuana arrests have declined, more arrests have been made over methamphetamine, with white people account for a more significant portion of those enforcement actions.
“From 2009 to 2019, arrests of White individuals for drug offenses fell by 11 percent, while the number of Black individuals arrested for drug offenses dropped by more than three times that percentage (37 percent),” Pew said. “These different rates of decline changed the racial composition of drug arrests.”
Still, the disparity continues. The center said that black people “made up 12 percent of the U.S. adult population but more than twice that share of adult drug arrests in 2019.”
So, how do these drug arrest trends relate to prison populations?
Among the states with available data, most actually saw *decreases* in people incarcerated for drug-related offenses.
One potential reason why: A 32% drop in arrests for drug sales and manufacturing. pic.twitter.com/d1SKYtgw9G
— Pew States (@PewStates) February 15, 2022

Incarceration levels over drugs also varied significantly from state-to-state, the report shows.
Pew reiterated that “the trends in drug arrests, prison admissions, and prison population diverged” over the decade.
“Fifty years of arresting and incarcerating people for drug offenses has produced poor public health and safety outcomes for society, particularly communities of color,” it said. “And although the shifts in drug enforcement patterns in recent decades have reduced some racial disparities and decreased prison populations, they have done little to mitigate the public health consequences of drug misuse.”
50 years of drug-related arrests and incarceration hasn't improved public health or safety—particularly for people of color.
It's time to ramp up reform, increase access to treatment, and create a more equitable criminal legal system for *all* Americans. https://t.co/nQ5xFrBSJ0
— Pew States (@PewStates) February 15, 2022

“Many people incarcerated across the country have substance use disorders, but few receive treatment. And drug mortality rates in both jails and prisons have continued to climb,” the report concluded. “More reforms are needed to further cut states’ reliance on arrest and incarceration for addressing substance misuse and to ensure a more equitable criminal legal system for all Americans.”
Pew separately released a poll late last year that revealed significant intraparty differences in how people of varying political perspectives view the issue of legalizing cannabis for recreational use.
However, it also showed that there is a broad consensus across ideological lines that patients should be able to legally access marijuana for medical purposes.
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Kyle Jaeger is Marijuana Moment’s Sacramento-based senior editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE and attn.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) is renewing its push to promote federally funded research into marijuana as more states enact reform—specifically expressing interest in studies on differing cannabis regulatory models that are in place across the country.
In a notice of interest published on Friday, the agency outlined the types of study proposals it hopes to fund and gave instructions to researchers on how to apply. NIDA said the guidance is informed by recommendations from a workgroup it set up to explore the issue in 2018.
The study solicitation is nearly identical to one NIDA put out in 2019, but that earlier notice expired last month. Evidently the agency is committed to seeing these research objectives through and has renewed them with the new filing.
NIDA’s notice is meant to “encourage grant applications on the effects of changing cannabis laws and policies in the US and globally on public health,” it said.
“Policies around of cannabis products (including whole plant cannabis and cannabis constituent compounds) in the United States (and globally) continue to evolve, and far outpace the knowledge needed to determine the public health impacts of these changes,” the notice says. “Growing numbers of states have loosened restrictions on cannabis, including those on sales and use, by passing medical marijuana laws or by making cannabis legal for adult recreational use, and in increasing numbers, states have done both.”
Examples of potential studies include developing standardized methods of measuring marijuana and its components, enhancing epidemiological research on cannabis use, determining “physical and mental health antecedents” of marijuana use, exploring the reasons people start to consume cannabis and continue to use it for therapeutic purposes and several other health-focused topics.
Interestingly, NIDA also again said it would be interested in funding research into “the heterogeneity of regulatory schemes (e.g. models for retail distribution of cannabis products) to understand which combinations or components minimize harm to public health.”
The reason that’s notable is because it’s another example of a federal agency effectively recognizing the inevitability of legalization and the need to start seriously thinking about regulatory models for cannabis.
NIDA emphasized that researchers must comply with the standard THC unit of five milligrams, which it developed and put into place last year, in order to conduct studies with human subjects.
Of course, even as NIDA encourages this kind of research, the head of the agency has repeatedly recognized that marijuana’s status as a Schedule I drug makes the application process onerous. NIDA Director Nora Volkow went so far as to say last year that even she is reluctant to conduct studies on Schedule I drugs like cannabis because of the “cumbersome” rules that scientists face.
NIDA submitted a separate report to Congress in October emphasizing that the Schedule I status of controlled substances such marijuana is preventing or otherwise discouraging research into their potential risks and benefits.
A National Cancer Institute research team similarly complained about the administrative barriers of marijuana research in a paper published late last year.
Several federal health agencies have worked to bolster cannabis science as the legalization movement spreads. In 2020, for example, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) highlighted funding opportunities for research into the therapeutic benefits of marijuana with an emphasis on pain management.
While the Schedule I restrictions remain challenging, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has taken steps to make substances like cannabis and psilocybin more available for research purposes by significantly increasing annual production quotas and ending the federal marijuana manufacturing monopoly.
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“Just putting this information together and putting it into the form that is useful is an extraordinarily large task.”
By Faith Miller, Colorado Newsline
Researchers have made “a great deal of progress” on reviewing available evidence of high-potency marijuana products’ health effects, the dean of the Colorado School of Public Health told state lawmakers Friday.
The scientific review is required under 2021 legislation, House Bill 21-1317, that sought to address concerns from parents about potential harms of edibles, wax, oil and other products that contain concentrated THC, the psychoactive molecule in marijuana.
To conduct its review, a team at the School of Public Health is first compiling data from existing evidence-based research into the effects of high-potency pot products. The team’s initial report is due July 1. HB-1317 provided $1 million per year for three years for the School of Public Health to complete the scientific review and then conduct additional research into areas where the review identifies knowledge gaps.
Dr. Jonathan Samet, dean of the Colorado School of Public Health, told lawmakers on the House Public and Behavioral Health and Human Services Committee that his team has started the process of collecting studies that examine the benefits and adverse effects of marijuana concentrates.
“We are bringing together, literally, the findings now from thousands of scientific publications,” Samet said.
Over the last six months, the research team has screened more than 46,000 scientific articles for potential inclusion in the review, and narrowed them down to about 5,000. Samet’s team has recruited at least 16 public health students so far to help with the project, he said.
Rep. Judy Amabile, a Boulder Democrat, asked whether in selecting studies for its review, the team was trying to balance the number of studies that looked into potential benefits of high-potency products with those that showed adverse effects. Samet said the goal was to capture all of the available information that met the team’s criteria. The School of Public Health is looking for evidence-based studies that examine the health outcomes for humans of using products with concentrated THC, according to the team’s published review protocol.
“Just putting this information together and putting it into the form that is useful is an extraordinarily large task, and I think none of us knew how much information…until this review was started,” Samet said. The team anticipates meeting their July 1 deadline for the initial report.
The question of whether such a review would, or should, be focused on adverse effects was one contentious topic last legislative session, when industry advocates expressed concerns that the review could be biased, depending on the language in the final version of HB-1317.
The bipartisan bill was sponsored last year by House Speaker Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat, and Rep. Yadira Caraveo, a Thornton Democrat, along with Sens. Chris Hansen, a Democrat from Denver, and Paul Lundeen, a Republican from Monument. Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, signed it into law in June.
Besides requiring the School of Public Health to complete a scientific review of the effects of high-potency marijuana products, HB-1317 put up new barriers to medical marijuana for young adults. While you must be at least 21 to purchase retail marijuana in Colorado, a medical marijuana card can be issued to adults ages 18 and older. HB-1317 required doctors recommending medical marijuana for 18- to 20-year-olds to do so through an in-person appointment. Doctors recommending marijuana for 18- to 20-year-olds now must review those patients’ mental health history—along with their medical history, which was already required—before recommending the substance. Those provisions of the new law don’t apply to young adults who had a medical marijuana card prior to turning 18.
The law also required all doctor recommendations for medical marijuana to include the maximum THC potency level, daily quantity and directions for use.
This story was first published by Colorado Newsline.
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An Oregon Senate committee recently advanced a bill to ensure that equity is built into the state’s historic therapeutic psilocybin program that’s actively being implemented following voter approval in 2020.
The bicameral measure from Sen. Lawrence Spence (D) and Rep. Wlnsvey Campos (D) would create a 15-member “Task Force on Psilocybin Health Equity” comprised of lawmakers, regulators involved in psilocybin reform implementation, people with experience in psychedelics treatment, representatives of the indigenous community and more.
The Senate Human Services, Mental Health and Recovery Committee unanimously approved the measure on February 10, with two members excused. It now heads to the Ways and Means Committee before it could potentially advance to the floor.
Psilocybin Health Equity, SB1580 has passed out of the Senate Committee on Human Services, Mental Health and Recovery by a vote of 3 yes – 2 excused!
Track this bill through our live bill tracker: https://t.co/FZKLjnmlLD
*Bills are being added and updated in real time. pic.twitter.com/z5Yb64Gd1z
— Akasha Lawrence Spence (@teamakasha) February 18, 2022

“Oregon needs to push for equity focused provisions that will support some of the most vulnerable communities including low-income and BIPOC individuals,” Campos said in written testimony before the panel. “We cannot continue the cycle of shutting out the future of medicine to certain communities and we have a rare opportunity here to prevent these inequities from being built into this system in the first place.”
Under the proposal, the task force would be responsible for ensuring “equity and accessibility in Oregon’s developing psilocybin services,” the bill text says.
At a minimum, the task force would be required to explore barriers that people of color face in starting psilocybin-related businesses, training and retaining “culturally specific psilocybin service facilitators” and access to psychedelic sessions for low-income people and minority communities.
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Members would also need to generally study the development of “psilocybin research-specific licenses and the regulation of research partnerships that explore the efficacy of psilocybin therapy and expansion of access to psilocybin services.”
They would be tasked with further looking into a psilocybin equity program to “provide resources to communities with barriers to accessing health care, to increase the number of culturally specific practices and people who are low-income who hold licenses.”

Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 1,000 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.

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The wide-ranging equity study would be used to inform regulatory or legislative decisions around reducing fees for disadvantaged communities, grants for those individuals to receive financial and technical assistance to enter the market and a proposal that “psilocybin service centers dedicate a minimum percentage of psilocybin treatment sessions to clients who are low-income.”
The task force would also need to investigate the possibility of creating a psilocybin equity office in the state. Members would be required to submit a report on its findings by November 1, 2022.
This would not be a permanent task force, as the aforementioned requirements would be repealed as of January 2, 2023 under the measure.
The existing Psilocybin Advisory Board is set to issue recommendations on implementing the program to state regulators in March.
Late last year, the board cleared a team of researchers to produce a comprehensive report on the science, history and culture of the psychedelic as regulators prepare to license facilities to administer it.
Members of the board released an initial report in July that reviewed hundreds of studies into psilocybin, as required under the state initiative. But they were pressed for time and said they would working with a recently established psychedelic research center at Harvard Law School to more thoroughly cover the subject.
Part of the intent of the expanded research project is to help inform legislative efforts outside of Oregon where psychedelics reform is being considered.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), who represents the state in Congress and endorsed the psychedelics initiative, said during an event with the national Plant Medicine Coalition last month that there’s a “very thoughtful, very deliberate” process underway to implement the reform.
The congressman said that he’s “very excited that Oregon is going to once again be pioneering a very critical policy area.” He also talked about his enthusiasm for the state experiment in response to a question from Marijuana Moment at a separate event in December.
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