A New Report Underscores The Folly of The Drug War.

by Allen St. Pierre

The NORML Foundation recently released a comprehensive county-by-county marijuana arrest and use analysis. The report concludes that federal marijuana laws which rely primarily on criminal penalties and law enforcement are an ineffective policy tool to control the sale and use of marijuana.

Public policies are measured by their ability to produce intended results. The stated goal of criminalized marijuana prohibition is to deter marijuana use and promote public health. The success or failure of US marijuana policy must be evaluated by its performance at accomplishing these goals. If current marijuana policy is to be judged an effective public policy, then increasing the arrest rate for marijuana possession, use and sale should produce the intended reduction in several of these key indicators, most importantly the use and availability of marijuana among the population.

Despite total US marijuana arrests increasing 165 percent during the 1990s (from 287,850 in 1991 to 755,000 in 2003), enhanced enforcement has not produced the intended results—and, in some cases, has actually produced the opposite results. Upon review of the available data, it is clear that increased arrest rates are not associated with reduced marijuana use, reduced marijuana availability, a reduction in the number of new users, reduced treatment admissions, reduced emergency-room mentions, any reduction in marijuana potency or any increase in the price of marijuana.

Increased marijuana enforcement is associated, rather, with greater fiscal and social costs. State and local justice costs for marijuana arrests are now estimated to be $7.6 billion (approximately $10,400 per arrest). Of this total, annual police costs are $3.7 billion, judicial/legal costs are $853 million and correctional costs are $3.1 billion. In both California and New York, state fiscal costs dedicated to criminal marijuana-law enforcement annually total over $1 billion each.

The social costs of criminal marijuana-law enforcement include demographic impacts and their effects on society. Marijuana-possession and -sale arrests disproportionately impact young males as well as black adults. Eighteen-year-old males comprise 0.7 percent of the population and 3.1 percent of annual marijuana users, but 8.1 percent of all marijuana-possession arrests. Males age 24 to 29 comprise 4 percent of the population and 9.7 percent of annual marijuana users, but 13.7 percent of all possession arrests. Black adults account for 8.8 percent of the population, 11.9 percent of annual marijuana users and 23 percent of marijuana-possession arrests. Overall, 25 percent of marijuana-possession arrests are of people age 18 or younger, and 74 percent are of people under the age of 30. Another unintended consequence of the US government’s anti-marijuana policymaking: Over one million teenagers in the US sell marijuana.

There is now ample data available to review the performance of US marijuana policy over the past decades, in particular the years between 1990 and 2000. Based on the data presented in this report, it’s evident that current US marijuana policy is failing to achieve its desired results when measured against key drug-use and public-health indicators. This report recommends the commencement of a serious national debate over the merits of replacing the current prohibition policy of marijuana control with a regulatory policy that provides legal access to marijuana for adults and removes the profit incentive for sale among teenagers.

Despite nearly 70 years of expensive and rigorous government enforcement of marijuana prohibition, there is—save for the issuance of this report from the NORML Foundation—only a scarce amount of publicly available information on the scope and cost of marijuana prohibition.

This comprehensive marijuana arrest and use report and analysis includes: state-by-state marijuana arrest and use data; county-by-county arrest and use data; comprehensive marijuana sales and sales arrest data; as well as data and graphical information for marijuana arrests by gender, age and race.

Crimes of Indiscretion: Marijuana Arrests in the United States, by Jon Gettman, Ph.D., is published by the NORML Foundation. It can be purchased by calling 888-67-NORML or viewed and downloaded for free at norml.org/index.cfm?Group_ID=6411.

READ THIS ARTICLE IN THE JULY 2005 ISSUE OF HIGH TIMES