Gary Chambers Jr., a Democrat who hopes to represent Louisiana in the U.S. Senate, made headlines by releasing a 37-second political ad in which he smokes marijuana while reciting a number of statistics about marijuana laws and how they’re enforced.
“Every 37 seconds, someone is arrested for possession of marijuana,” Chambers said, his narration playing over the sound of a ticking timer. “Since 2010, state and local police have arrested an estimated 7.3 million Americans for violating marijuana laws — over half of all drug arrests.”
He continued: “Black people are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana laws than white people. States waste $3.7 billion enforcing marijuana laws every year. Most of the people police are arresting aren’t dealers, but rather people with small amounts of pot, just like me.”
While many news outlets focused on Chambers’ surprising use of marijuana in a political ad, PolitiFact wanted to dig into the data he cites.
We found that Chamber’s claim was based on 2010 data that referred to marijuana arrests generally. But the 37 second figure doesn’t hold up when compared with recent figures specific to marijuana possession, which have slowed in recent years, due in part to state changes in legalization.
Ad uses data from 2010
The ad cited the American Civil Liberties Union as a data source. A spokesperson for the Chambers campaign said the team primarily pulled its numbers from an ACLU report published in June 2013 and a slideshow that appeared to be based on the same report.
“We additionally spoke with a variety of experts in the cannabis lobbying space to ensure we had industry-accepted numbers,” added campaign spokesperson Katie Dolan.
She pointed out that the ACLU’s landing page for the 2013 report and the slideshow both said that “cops made one pot bust every 37 seconds.”
The ACLU report said its annual marijuana arrest data was “obtained largely” from FBI Uniform Crime Reporting data. The FBI’s UCR program annually collects law enforcement data from various city, university and college, county, state, tribal, and federal law enforcement agencies.
The data has its limitations: Participation in the UCR program is voluntary, definitions of crimes can vary among local jurisdictions, and the same information is not always reported year to year.
The ACLU noted that some areas (Illinois, Florida, the District of Columbia, and the five boroughs of New York City) do not report data on marijuana possession arrests by race to the FBI, so records requests were filed to obtain that data.
Within the report, the ACLU drilled into the specifics: “In 2010 alone, there were 889,133 marijuana arrests — 300,000 more than arrests for all violent crimes combined — or one every 37 seconds.”
The ACLU referenced “marijuana arrests” generally, meaning the number includes people arrested for crimes beyond just possession, such as dealing, so Chambers’ claim is off in that regard.
In 2010, there were 784,021 marijuana possession arrests, according to the ACLU. Using that value, arrests occurred at a pace less frequent than once every 37 seconds.
In an updated report issued in 2020, the ACLU again relied on UCR data to examine marijuana arrests from 2010 to 2018. And though it did not include an updated figure about how frequently marijuana arrests occurred, PolitiFact reached out to experts about what more recent data indicates.
Experts say that arrests now occur less frequently.
Aaron Madrid Aksoz, an ACLU spokesperson, said data current through 2018 now shows there were “6.1 million marijuana-related arrests between 2010 and 2018.” From there, he calculated that there was one marijuana-related arrest every 46.56 seconds.
Paul Armentano, deputy director of the pro-marijuana legalization organization NORML, said annual state-level marijuana-related arrests have been trending downward since about 2009.
Data from 2019 and 2020 showed significant drops in marijuana-related arrests. The decrease coincides with the increased legalization of marijuana. Colorado was the first state to legalize recreational marijuana with a 2012 ballot initiative, and since then, 17 other states, Washington, D.C., and Guam have decriminalized recreational marijuana.
Jon Gettman, an associate professor of criminal justice at Shenandoah University, has extensively researched data on marijuana arrests and helped the ACLU compile its 2013 report. Gettman used 2019 FBI data to do his calculations and concluded there was one marijuana-related arrest every 58 seconds.
Matt Sutton of Drug Policy Alliance used the FBI’s estimated number of arrests in 2020 to run the calculations using the most recent data available from UCR. It showed there were about 1.16 million “drug abuse violation” arrests in 2020.
Of those arrests, 2.8% were for selling or manufacturing marijuana and 27.5% were for possession, for a total of about 350,150 marijuana-related arrests and 317,793 marijuana possession arrests.
Those calculations, then, show that in 2020, there was one marijuana-related arrest every 90 seconds, and one marijuana possession arrest about every 99 seconds.
The ad’s other marijuana claims
Chambers’ other claims in the ad have varying degrees of accuracy.
“Since 2010, state and local police have arrested an estimated 7.3 million Americans for violating marijuana laws — over half of all drug arrests.” This could use a little more context. FBI data shows that about 7.35 million marijuana arrests have been made since 2010. But the proportion of drug arrests that were marijuana-related has been decreasing. In 2018, marijuana-related arrests accounted for 40% of all drug arrests in the U.S. In 2020, that share has fallen to 30.3%.
“Black people are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana laws than white people.” That’s accurate when rounding up. The campaign drew that data from ACLU’s 2013 and 2020 reports.
“States waste $3.7 billion enforcing marijuana laws every year.” The figure seems to be based on very general figures about how much the U.S. spends on police protection. The U.S. spent $100 billion on police protection in 2017, according to a Bureau of Justice Statistics report. Marijuana arrests accounted for about 6.3% of all arrests that year. Assuming broadly that the percentage of arrests is equivalent to the percentage of costs, the U.S. seems to spend significantly more than $3.7 billion enforcing marijuana laws each year. Whether it’s a waste is a matter of opinion.
“Most of the people police are arresting aren’t dealers, but rather people with small amounts of pot.” That’s true. Using FBI data, the ACLU reports show that the vast majority of marijuana-related arrests are for possession. In 2020, FBI data indicated that about 91% of marijuana arrests were for possession.
Chambers said, “Every 37 seconds, someone is arrested for possession of marijuana.”
The claim was based on 2010 data that dealt with marijuana-related arrests, but it is outdated now.
Experts, including a spokesperson for the ACLU, say that more recent data indicates that marijuana-related arrests now happen less frequently — at a rate of about one every 46 seconds, 58 seconds or 90 seconds, depending on how you approach the math problem. And 2020 data suggests an arrest for marijuana possession alone occurs every 99 seconds — still frequent, but a far slower rate than Chambers’ ad suggests.
We rate this claim Mostly False.