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420 with CNW — DOJ Asks FBI to Investigate Itself After Cannabis Arrest Data Errors Are Found

Cannabis News Wire, Media Partners

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After more than a year, a watchdog from the Justice Department responded to a lawyer’s concerns about issues in how the FBI gathers and reports data related to marijuana possession arrests. The response, however, was not a direct addressing of the problem but a suggestion that the FBI should internally investigate the matter.

Eric Sterling, a lawyer known for his work in drug-policy reform and a former congressional aide, sent a letter to the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General in May last year. In his letter, Sterling highlighted a situation where a police department in Maryland was categorizing citations for cannabis possession under the state’s decriminalization law as arrests. This data was being shared with the FBI, potentially leading to skewed statistics and a distorted view of law enforcement’s focus and the implementation of legalization and decriminalization policies.

Sterling, an appointed member of the Policing Advisory Commission for Montgomery County, Maryland, urged the DOJ inspector general’s office to initiate a formal investigation into this matter.

After approximately 14 months, the OIG investigations division responded to Sterling’s inquiry. Instead of directly addressing the issue, division officials indicated that another department within the DOJ would be better suited to review the concerns. They subsequently referred the matter to the FBI’s inspection division.

Sterling expressed concern that the delayed response signified a lack of capacity within the DOJ’s investigative body, potentially compromising its ability to handle more serious cases of misconduct. The delay is noteworthy because it could impact the accuracy of the FBI’s annual uniform crime report. With more than a year already passed, there’s a risk that the report will continue to inaccurately represent the changes in cannabis policy happening across the nation.

This situation is particularly relevant in areas that have decriminalized marijuana, where possession might lead to civil penalties but is not meant to result in an arrest. By wrongly categorizing these instances as arrests, the impact of policy changes could be understated or even misrepresented as an increase in crime.

Furthermore, the reliability of the FBI’s cannabis enforcement reporting is questionable because local and state police aren’t obligated to share their data with the agency. This results in an incomplete overview of law enforcement activities on a national scale. The latest quarterly report had data from only 12,518 out of 18,900 law enforcement agencies in the country.

Despite these reporting concerns, recent trends have generally aligned with expectations. The FBI’s data shows a decrease in cannabis-related arrests as more states have embraced legalization. Even the DEA reported fewer marijuana-related arrests in the previous year, while the agency’s eradication of cannabis plants increased.

Customs and Border Protection data from the past fiscal year also revealed a record low in cannabis seizures. A report from the Government Accountability Office echoed these trends, illustrating that enforcement activities are primarily targeting small amounts of marijuana possessed by U.S. citizens rather than large shipments from international sources.

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