Nearly 750,000 people, disproportionately individuals of color, are arrested every year in the United States for marijuana-related crimes. Of these, nearly 87% are arrested for simple possession. America is clearly tough on crime, right?
Sure, when the crime happens to involve possession of a small amount of a controlled substance. But, when the crime happens to be the not-so-small infraction of murder, law enforcement has a more difficult time cracking down.
According to the FBI’s 2012 Annual Uniform Crime Report, more than half (53.2%) of all violent crimes in the United States go unsolved. The overall clearance rate for murder cases is even lower.
It’s not that the police haven’t gotten any better at solving crime in recent years. It’s that they’ve actually gotten worse. Fun fact: National clearance rates for murder and manslaughter have fallen from close to 90 percent in the 1960s to below 65 percent in recent years. The problem isn’t confined to any particular region of the country, as the average homicide solution rate during the last two decades fell in 63 of the nation’s 100 largest departments.
Cops haven't been overwhelmed by a surge in violent crime, either. Murder rates are at the lowest rate they’ve been since the 1960s. This widespread failure means that thousands of people a year (around 6,000 or so) are quite literally getting away with murder.
The big problem is federal laws provide perverse incentives for police departments to emphasize drug law enforcement over fighting serious crimes.
The government hands out close to $10 billion a year in grants to domestic law enforcement to assist in drug law enforcement. Once a department has received one of these grants, often times totaling in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, the money has to be justified, and the simplest route is to use the money to make arrests.
Asset forfeiture laws are also a big part of the problem. The Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act passed in 1970 authorizes federal law enforcement to seize property, including money and vehicles, alleged to have facilitated illegal drug transactions or the proceeds of such transactions. Over 40 states provide for asset forfeiture, as well. And in 1984, Congress passed the Comprehensive Crime Control Act, empowering local police to share in the proceeds of their seizures in a program Equitable Sharing. This legislation fueled an explosion in law enforcement asset seizures.
An audit performed by the Justice Department in September of 2012 shows that for the period of October 1, 2000, through September 30, 2011, the DEA and other federal agencies processed over 150,644 seized assets valued at about $9.2 billion. Assets seized at the state level total over one billion dollars annually, while local police departments average more than $7,000 per department each year.
While there are also other factors that contribute to the striking discrepancy in enforcement priorities, the bottom line is this: Law enforcement agencies in America are incentivized to prioritize cracking down on cannabis over killing.
It would be one thing if tough drug enforcement were helping to keep children off drugs. But the National Survey on Drug Use and Health in 2009 found that "16.7 million Americans aged 12 or older used marijuana at least once in the month prior to being surveyed, an increase over the rates reported in all years between 2002 and 2008."
So maybe it’s time we start looking into those murders.