Every year, when the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) releases its annual arrest statistics, news outlets buzz about the still staggeringly high number of marijuana arrests.

Despite support for marijuana legalization now above the 50 percent mark, police made over 620,000 marijuana possession arrests in 2014. This number is striking, and an important data point. What national arrest statistics obscure, however, is just how localized the issue of marijuana enforcement really is.

Consider this: in the fiscal year, about 3,500 marijuana defendants were sentenced in federal court (almost all for trafficking, not possession)—a small fraction of the number of marijuana arrests nationwide. In other words, nearly all marijuana enforcement in the United States takes place at the state and local level (Indeed, this is true for all drugs).

This isn’t especially surprising if we think about the nature of drug enforcement for a moment. Most drug busts result from a local cop responding to a neighbor’s complaint or a highway patrol officer searching someone’s car during a traffic stop, not from a lengthy federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) investigation.

Different Localities Have Different Laws

The localized nature of drug enforcement has a number of important policy implications. Learn Liberty’s Burning Questions video aims to highlight this fact, using the example of a police officer finding someone in possession of an ounce of marijuana. As the video shows, the potential consequences can differ dramatically, depending on where you are (and whether a prosecutor decides to charge the case as simple possession or possession with intent to distribute).

The video uses one ounce of marijuana as an example. But if we were to adjust the amount down a bit, to 10 grams (or 1/3 of an ounce), the results would change again.

  • In 2014, Maryland passed a law decriminalizing possession of 10 grams or less of marijuana. Under that law, the penalty for possessing 10 grams or less of marijuana is a $100 civil fine with no risk of jail. (By comparison, possession of one ounce is still a misdemeanor in Maryland with a penalty of up to one year in jail and/or a $1,000 fine.)
  • In Washington D.C., there would be no penalty at all, since the District has legalized the possession of up to two ounces of marijuana by those 21 and over.
  • And in Virginia, the penalty would be up to 30 days in jail and/or a $500 fine.

It Gets Complicated…

Even the scenario in the Burning Questions video—one ounce of marijuana—raises more legal nuances than could fit a few short minutes.

Most notably, the penalty in Virginia is much different for simple possession of an ounce of marijuana than it is for possession of an ounce of marijuana with the intent to distribute. Simple possession of marijuana is a misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of 30 days and/or a $500 fine under Virginia law, regardless of the amount.

But possession of more than a half ounce of marijuana with the intent to distribute carries a minimum of one year in prison with a maximum of ten. Whether a given case is charged one way or the other can depend on a number of factors like:

  • Did the person have a “large amount” of cash on them?
  • Was the marijuana in one large baggie or a few smaller ones?
  • Is the local prosecutor, who decides what charges to file, an anti-marijuana drug warrior or indifferent when it comes to marijuana cases?

(Both the video and the numbers above are based on first-offense adult penalties. The law is sometimes different for juveniles or those under 21. For example, in D.C., possession of marijuana is still against the law if you’re under 21. Similarly, a criminal record can increase some penalties, sometimes quite severely.)

Complexity Aside, Here’s the Most Important Implication of All…

Of course, for present purposes, the broader point is much more important than the specifics. The Burning Questions video isn’t meant to teach you about the finer points of Virginia, D.C., or Maryland’s marijuana laws, but to illustrate just how important state law and local policy is when it comes to marijuana enforcement.

And if you’re someone who is concerned about this issue, this fact can be incredibly empowering. That’s because it is much easier to influence your state’s marijuana laws or your local police department’s marijuana enforcement policies than it is to change federal marijuana law.

Simply put, drug policy is one issue where local activism has the potential to make a big difference.

Curious about how drug laws change across state lines? Check out the video below.