Members of the legal marijuana industry, who for months have been nervously anticipating a federal crackdown led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, can breathe a sigh of relief. According to data from the Justice Department, the number of federal drug-crime prosecutions has fallen to its lowest level in 25 years, and the decline has continued to accelerate since President Donald Trump took office.
The latest data show that federal law-enforcement agencies prosecuted fewer drug offenders over the past 12 months than at any time during the last quarter century. During the first five months of the Trump administration, only 8,814 drug offenders were prosecuted by the federal government, a drop of 9 percent as compared with the 9,687 federal criminal cases prosecuted between February and June 2016.
Prosecutions fell sharply in June on a month-to-month basis following a spike in May. Over the long term, the six-month average has been declining slowly since 2003.
“During the month of June 2017, only 1,578 new prosecutions for drug crimes were brought – down 16.1 percent from the number in May. And prosecutions over the past year are even lower than they were five years ago. Overall, the data show that drug prosecutions in U.S. district courts are down 27.6 percent from levels reported in 2012.”
According to the report, most (75.8%) federal drug prosecutions involve trafficking charges, while another 21.8% are related to organized crime.
“So far during the first nine months of FY 2017, about 1 in 5 cases (21.8%) were the result of organized crime task force efforts. An additional three out of four (75.8%) fell under drug trafficking programs, while simple drug possession was the nature of the offense in the remaining 2.5 percent of cases.
The lead investigative agency for the largest number of prosecutions so far during FY 2017 was the Drug Enforcement Administration. It was the lead investigative agency in nearly four out every ten (38.9%) federal criminal prosecutions filed.”
If the decline continues at the current rate, the US is on track to see a sharp drop in the number of per-capita prosecutions in 2017.
“During FY 2016 the Justice Department said the government obtained 68.9 narcotics/drugs prosecutions for every one million people in the United States. If pace during the first nine months of FY 2017 continues at the same rate, narcotics/drugs prosecutions for one million people in the United States this year will be 65.3.”
While the long-term trend appears to ignore the worsening opioid epidemic, some of the largest year-over-year increases occurred in regions where opioid abuse has surged since the beginning of the decade. The Northern District of West Virginia, a state with the largest number of opioid prescriptions written per capita, saw the largest year-over-year increase. Over the past five years, Wyoming saw the largest increase n prosecutions, up 242%. The district with the largest projected drop in the rate of prosecutions was New Mexico, with 30%.
The most-active district is unsurprisingly situated along the US-Mexico border. The Southern District of California, which encompasses San Diego, saw 453.6 prosecutions per million people last year, while the District of Arizona ranked second.
Sessions has insisted that stepped up enforcement of drug laws is essential to combating the worsening opioid abuse crisis, but the decline But the decline in prosecutions suggests that law enforcement agencies have been somehow less active in targeting high-level drug offenders, even as overdose deaths rise to all-time highs thanks to powerful synthetic opioids that have penetrated the markets for heroin, cocaine and even prescription pills. Given the high stakes, and the actions against drug manufacturers recetly ataken by a nmber of states' attorneys general, the decline in prosecutions at the federal level makes little sense.