The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) seized more than 5.7 million marijuana plants last year, a demonstrable increase that bucks the trend that’s been observed over recent years amid the state legalization movement. Meanwhile, the agency made far fewer cannabis-related arrests in 2022.
DEA’s statistical report for the Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program (DCE/SP), which was released earlier this spring, revealed the latest enforcement trends, with the total number of seized plants last year at the highest level since 2011.
Marijuana arrests continue to decline, however. In 2022, DEA made 5,061 cannabis-related arrests—down 24 percent compared to the year prior when 6,606 arrests were made.
Morgan Fox, political director of NORML, said that the “reasons we are still seeing relatively high levels of marijuana eradication and interdiction are simple.”
“Despite considerable state-level progress, more than half of all US states continue to ban regulated adult-use cannabis markets,” he said. “Furthermore, the federal government overtaxes state-licensed cannabis businesses and makes it extremely difficult for them to access basic financial services so that they can better compete with unregulated operators.”
“Spending billions of taxpayers’ dollars to enforce federal cannabis prohibition, putting law enforcement officers in unnecessary danger, and hampering the implementation and effectiveness of state-regulated markets are clearly not the answers to this issue,” Fox added. “Rather, the federal and state governments should work toward furthering sensible policies that facilitate regulated cannabis markets and work to repair the harms caused by nearly a century of prohibition.”
Nearly 90 percent of the plants that DEA eradicated—and more than 50 percent of the marijuana-related arrests—were in California, where cannabis is legal but where the majority of jurisdictions in the state ban licensed retailers from operating. That regulatory patchwork has enabled illicit producers to continue to thrive and supply cannabis both inside and outside of the state, making it a key target for federal enforcement.
“California has always exported the majority of its marijuana crop out of state and the adoption of adult-use legalization in the Golden State has done little to change this fact,” California NORML Coordinator Dale Gieringer said.
While DEA’s eradication program is chopping down large numbers of plants, the decline in arrests is consistent with trends that have been observed over recent years as more states have moved to enact legalization.
An annual report from the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC) that was released in March also showed that federal marijuana trafficking cases continued to decline in 2022, for example.
Legalization advocates have long argued that providing access to regulated marijuana markets for adults would drive down demand for illicit products, translating into fewer arrests.
Federal data from Customs and Border Protection (CBP) that was released in January also shows that cannabis seizures fell to a record low in Fiscal Year 2022.
A report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that was released last year also paints a clearer picture of who is getting caught up in its enforcement activities. At checkpoints across the country, agents are mostly taking small amounts of marijuana from American citizens, rather than making large busts of international cartels like some might assume.
Also, consistent with other studies and federal reports, the analysis revealed a significant decline in cannabis seizures at checkpoints overall since 2016. In 2016, there were 70,058 pounds of marijuana seized at checkpoints by Border Patrol, compared to 30,828 pounds in 2020.
FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) program has similarly shown a notable decrease in cannabis “arrests” that are made at the local and state level as more states enact reform. (However, experts have raised questions about the quality of FBI’s data, based on alleged confusion among law enforcement agencies about reporting requirements.)
In another report from last year, the Congressional Research Service said that the spread of legal cannabis states domestically, combined with international reform efforts, has reduced demand for illicit marijuana from Mexico.
As part of its Fiscal Year 2023 performance budget summary submitted to Congress last year, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) also acknowledged that as more marijuana is being produced domestically in the U.S., it’s undermining illicit cannabis trafficking across the southern border.
A study released by the Cato Institute in 2018 found that “state-level marijuana legalization has significantly undercut marijuana smuggling.”
Federal prosecutions of drug-related crimes overall increased in 2019, but cases involving marijuana dropped by more than a quarter, according to an end-of-year report released by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts in December.
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Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.