Last month, the Federal Bureau of Investigation released its accounting of all arrests made by law enforcement agencies across the fruited plain. Cops and federal agents made 12,408,899 arrests in the USA in 2011. No wonder we're known around the world as Incarceration Nation.
Let's walk through the breakdown of that big number:
•Of the total, 534,704 arrests were for violent crimes, and that number was down about 5 percent from 2010.
•Driving under the influence accounted for 1.21 million arrests.
•Larceny and theft: 1.26 million
•Drug abuse violations: 1.5 million.
•Three-quarters of all people arrested were males. Nearly 70 percent of the arrested were white, 28 percent were black, and the rest were other races.
Let's go back to drug arrests because that's always the biggest single category in the FBI's Uniform Crime Report.
Here's how the narc stuff breaks down:
The sale or manufacture of controlled dangerous substances — heroin, cocaine, marijuana and other "dangerous, non-narcotic drugs" (barbiturates and benzedrine), and "synthetic or manufactured drugs" (Demerol, methadone) — accounted for just 18 percent of the 1.5 million drug arrests last year.
That means the overwhelming majority of them — 82 percent — were for possession.
The FBI breaks that number down, too.
Of all the drug arrests, 16 percent were for heroin or cocaine possession, 17 percent were for possession of "dangerous, non-narcotic drugs," and about 5 percent were for possession of "synthetic or manufactured drugs."
Last, but certainly not least, were arrests for marijuana possession. They accounted for 43 percent of all drug arrests in 2011.
So, just in case you were operating under the impression that the law had backed off the whole grass-possession thing, there it is: More than four out of 10 of all narcotics arrests made in United States were for people having marijuana in their possession.
And one more breakdown for you:
Arrests for marijuana possession accounted for just about half of all drug arrests in the Northeast and in the South.
So that's what our cops spend a lot of their time doing — arresting people for pot, hundreds of thousands of times per year.
They do a lot of other stuff, of course, and a lot of the other stuff actually protects people from bad guys, and thank you very much.
But this whole business of arresting people for smoking pot — one huge waste of time and money.
I've been tracking for years a group of law enforcement and criminal justice professionals (cops, prosecutors and judges) who agree with that.
The group is called Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. It's a national organization that declared the war on drugs senseless. The head of LEAP is a retired narc named Neill Franklin who lives in Maryland. He served 34 years with the state police and Baltimore Police Department.
"Even excluding the costs involved for later trying and then imprisoning these people, taxpayers are spending between $1.5 billion and $3 billion a year just on the police and court time involved in making these arrests," Franklin said after the FBI's latest report. "That's a lot of money to spend for a practice that four decades of unsuccessful policies have proved does nothing to reduce the consumption of drugs."
The FBI numbers take on heightened relevance in light of what happened on Election Day.
On Tuesday, voters in Colorado and Washington made it legal to smoke pot without a prescription or a medical reason.
That's a breakthrough in the long stalemate in the public debate about the war on drugs — electorates in two states expressing what the American public has been telling politicians for a long time, that we spend too much money and manpower on chasing and incarcerating people who use drugs. It has been going on for 40 years. It hasn't decreased the demand for drugs, but it has led to an epoch of terrible violence related to the underground commerce, and it has filled our prisons.
And just in case you thought the war on drugs was all about stopping the flow of heroin and cocaine, look at the numbers again: Nearly 50 percent of all drug arrests made in this country last year were for either the sale or possession of marijuana.
Of course, despite the votes in Colorado and Washington, federal law still lists marijuana as an illegal drug.
You don't have to be a liberal or libertarian to see how that makes little sense. You can be a conservative and see the merit in the argument to liberate the marijuana laws: The money spent on that effort could be returned to taxpayers or it could go to some other realm of law enforcement (prosecuting enterprises that pollute our water and air, or making our border with Mexico more secure). Maybe there's a new federal prison we won't have to build. Maybe our cops could spend more time working with at-risk kids to keep them from being recruited by gangs.
There's a better way to go with all this. The people in Washington and Colorado opened the door.