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Federal Cannabis Prosecutions Hit New Lows As Fentanyl Cases Skyrocket

Federal cannabis prosecutions continued to decline in 2021, hitting fresh lows as fentanyl and methamphetamine cases climbed to record highs, according to a preliminary report released this week by the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC).

Over the last decade, prosecutions by the U.S. government for weed trafficking or possession have steeply and consistently declined. The USSC data shows only around 1,000 (5.7%) of the 17,530 federal drug cases were for weed in fiscal year 2021, compared to 1,155 during the previous year. Since 2016, federal cannabis trafficking cases have dropped by more than 70%.

Experts say the decline in federal cannabis prosecutions is tied to a general shift in public opinion about weed. As more and more states move to legalize pot, federal prosecutors may be more reluctant to prosecute cannabis, prioritizing more lethal drugs instead. State-level prosecutions for weed have also substantially dropped, hitting a low in 2020 with 350,150 arrests, compared to 545,601 arrests in 2019.

Meanwhile. the USSC report shows prosecutions for fentanyl skyrocketed in FY 2021, surpassing both crack cocaine and cannabis to become the fourth most common drug case in federal courts. Fentanyl cases shot up by a whopping 49% last fiscal year, hitting 1,527 cases compared to 1,021 in FY 2020.

In a tweet published on Tuesday, USSC said the significant uptick in fentanyl prosecutions marks “a historic shift in the federal drug caseload.” A synthetic opioid up to 50 times more potent than heroin, fentanyl has fueled a nationwide surge in overdose deaths, which surpassed 100,000 between April 2020 and April 2021, per data from the Centers for Disease Control.

Graphic shows distribution of primary drug type In federal drug Cases for fiscal year 2021. Fentanyl is shown as part of “Other” category, accounting for 1,527 cases out of 17,530 drug cases. Source: U.S. Sentencing Commission.

Despite the fentanyl uptick, methamphetamine remains the most prosecuted drug in federal courts by a long shot, now representing close to half (48.1%) of all drug sentences. Federal meth cases have shot up by around 25% since 2016, and continued to grow last fiscal year. Powder cocaine also kept its position as the second most prevalent drug in federal cases at 16.6%, followed by heroin at 10.2%.

Overall, federal drug cases increased slightly during FY2021, climbing back to their pre-pandemic levels to make up about a third of all federal cases (31.3%) after a dip in FY2020. Experts say the drop in overall cases during the first year of the coronavirus crisis may have been tied to pandemic-related trial delays in federal courts.

Trafficking cases still made up the vast majority – around 98% – of federal drug cases in FY2021 while only 289 sentences were handed down for drug possession. Racial disparities persisted as well: Blacks accounted for 37% of possession cases and 26% of trafficking cases, despite making up just 12.4% of the total U.S. population. Hispanics were the most heavily prosecuted for drug trafficking, making up nearly half (45%) of all cases.

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