Debra J. Saunders
Thursday, October 20, 2005

IN 2004, law enforcement officials arrested 771,605 people for marijuana violations, according to federal statistics. Bruce Mirken of the Marijuana Policy Project was so alarmed he sent out a press release noting that there were more arrests for marijuana charges than all violent crimes combined. The number of arrests for possession alone was 684,319.

Said Mirken of the 771,605 statistic: "This is, in fact, an all-time record. This number of arrests is the equivalent of arresting every man, woman and child in San Francisco." Some 40 percent of Americans say they have used marijuana or hashish in their lifetime, and 34 percent of high-school seniors say they have used marijuana in the last year -- even though the last decade has seen a huge spike in marijuana arrests, according to federal research. When the number of marijuana arrests exceeds the population of some states, the country should be asking: Does it make sense to keep millions of otherwise-law-abiding citizens on the dark side of the law?

A few notes about those numbers. Federal officials told me that they don't track how many of these arrests result in convictions, or how many total drug-possession convictions (including misdemeanors) occur in the United States.

I asked Tom Riley of White House drug czar John Walters' office if he thought the high arrest figure was good. "Yes," Riley responded. "Marijuana is a much more serious drug than most Americans realize. It's a more potent drug than it was in the past."

Riley referred me to material from his office that explained that many first-time users serve no jail time and often see their records expunged if they don't re-offend. He added, "Anybody who has watched 'COPS' knows that the way so much retail-level policing goes -- someone is violent, or causing damage, and they get arrested -- it's hard and complicated to prove a lot of crimes like assault and battery," while it is "easy to prove" marijuana possession.

Indeed, the Marijuana Policy Project referred me to John Elwood of Florida so that he could talk about how an arrest for marijuana possession affected him. Elwood, 34, told me he was charged with possession of marijuana when he was arrested for drunken driving two years ago. Oddly, the marijuana conviction (his second drug offense) has hurt him more. He was charged with a felony for possessing about an ounce of marijuana, he said, while the drunken-driving charge was a misdemeanor. "I was fortunate because I already had a job where people knew me," he noted. Still, the marijuana conviction caused him to split with his fiance, he said, because she wanted to move out of state, but he didn't think he could get another job -- he's a veterinary technician.

OK, Elwood is no poster child. Instead, consider Cal State Fullerton student Marisa Garcia, who in 2000 discovered she couldn't qualify for student aid because of an arrest for possession of a marijuana pipe. I spoke with her in February. If she had been convicted of a violent crime, she could have qualified for federal student aid.

Mirken took issue with Riley's claim that many marijuana arrests signify other crimes. "It is virtually impossible to get accurate descriptions of the number of people locked up on marijuana charges," he rightly noted. And:

"Here's something else, if you look at the surveys going back for many years, rates of marijuana use have not changed that much and they've gone down a bit in the last couple of years. The number of marijuana arrests has roughly tripled. It doesn't make sense that, all of a sudden, three times as many people arrested for something else now have marijuana with them. It doesn't pass the smell test."

Taxpayers for Common Sense commissioned a report on federal drug spending from Harvard economist Jeffrey A. Miron. Miron also struggled to find a solid methodology to calculate out how much the federal government spends on drug policies. Myriad agencies are involved and there is no set way to compute how much they spend on marijuana. He extrapolated a figure of at least $3.67 billion in federal spending to reduce marijuana use in 2004.

Over the last three decades, Miron figured, the federal government spent a cumulative total of $257 billion (in 2003 dollars) on anti-drug efforts. While marijuana use declined, the decline began during the Carter administration years, before the Reagan "Just Say No" campaign days. Not that those billions make much difference.

As Miron reported, "Marijuana use rates are little different now than in 1975, despite a substantial escalation in federal marijuana spending over this time period." And: "The fact that trends in marijuana use bear no overall relation to federal marijuana spending casts doubt on whether these policies reduce marijuana use."

Mirken noted that, at the very least, taxpayers might want to shift resources and spend federal dollars fighting "drugs that actually kill people."