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An Overview of Historical Federal Cannabis Charge Statistics (and Why They May Be Declining)

Apr 21, 2022

In 2012, Colorado and Washington made headlines when they became the first two states in the U.S. to legalize cannabis for recreational use. Since then, 18 other states as well as the District of Columbia have followed suit by passing legislation for recreational distribution and consumption.

Classified as a Schedule I drug by the Controlled Substance Act, the same as methamphetamine or cocaine, cannabis is still illegal at the federal level. However, as more state lawmakers pass legislation to legalize recreational use, federal cannabis trafficking cases and charges have steadily dropped year-over-year.

According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s 2021 Sourcebook, in 2012, the same year Colorado and Washington first passed their legislation, there were roughly 7,000 offenders charged with cannabis trafficking by federal prosecutors. Cannabis made up 27.6% of all drug trafficking charges that year, the most of any category.

As more states continued to pass legislation to legalize recreational cannabis, the number of federal trafficking charges began to drop year-after-year. In 2016, when nine states in total had opened for recreational use, cannabis trafficking cases fell to approximately 3,500 cases.

Most recently, in 2021, that number dropped below 1,000 for the first time in this period, with 996 total people charged for trafficking cannabis, accounting for only 5.7% of the total federal drug trafficking cases, the least of all major categories.

From 2012 to 2021, while total drug trafficking charges have decreased by 31%, cannabis-related charges dropped 86%. While it’s difficult to pin this decline down to a single factor, some experts accredit it to states continuing to pass new legislation for recreational consumption.

Figure 1. Federal Cannabis Tracking Charges and States with Legalized Recreational Use 2012–2021


Figure 1 outlines both the yearly cannabis trafficking charges (blue), as reported by the United States Sentencing Commision’s 2021 Sourcebook, as well as the total states that have legalized cannabis for recreational use (orange), according to MJBiz Daily’s Map of Marijuana Legalization by State.

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