A new report from the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) pegs the costs of marijuana law enforcement in the United States at $7.6 billion annually and finds that escalating marijuana arrests over the past two decades have failed to have any impact on marijuana use rates or other indicators chosen by drug enforcers to measure "success" in the war on drugs. What marijuana law enforcement has accomplished, the study found, is hundreds of thousands of arrests each year, with the burden of criminal sanctions borne disproportionately by the young and the non-white.
Current marijuana polices, which rely heavily on criminal penalties, are "wholly ineffective at controlling the use and sale of marijuana," the study concluded.
Authored by researcher and long-time marijuana watcher Jon Gettman, "Crimes of Indiscretion: Marijuana Arrests in the United States" includes a wealth of data on the costs associated with pot law enforcement, as well as a state-by-state and demographic analysis of who is being arrested under the marijuana laws. It's not a pretty picture.
Marijuana law enforcement is effectively racially biased, the study found, with blacks being arrested for marijuana offenses at a rate twice what would be expected based on their usage levels. While adult blacks constitute 11.9% of annual marijuana users, they account for 23% of all marijuana possession arrests in the United States.
Blacks aren't the only ones paying a disproportionate price, the study found. One out of four marijuana possession arrests involves people under the age of 18, and nearly three-quarters of all pot arrests are for people under the age of 30. As the report noted, "Marijuana users who are white, over 30 years old, and/or female are disproportionately unaffected by marijuana possession arrests."
"We see some interesting patterns," said Allen St. Pierre, NORML executive director. "Although our figures only go through 2002, we see that the massive increase in marijuana arrests in New York City has been reversed. The number decreased from 58,000 in 2001 to only 9,000 the following year," he told DRCNet. "This resulted from a combination of Mayor Bloomberg's staff getting rid of Operation Condor and, of course, from 9-11. The priorities are different now, as they should be."
"The other significant difference is that in our last report four years ago, we saw a huge number of arrests and racial disparity in the Rust Belt extending from Albany and Schenectady over to Cleveland," said St. Pierre. "This time, that macro pattern has shifted to the Upper Midwest -- Nebraska, the Dakotas, Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Michigan -- and the racial disparities are so much higher than elsewhere in the US. In places like South Dakota, you see blacks or Indians getting arrested at a ratio of 9:1 over whites."
On the other hand, Montana has the lowest per capita marijuana arrest rate in the country, St Pierre said. "Probably the safest place in the country to be a marijuana user is the college towns of Montana," he said.
Based on numbers from 2002, the latest year for which complete data was available, the study found that taxpayers shelled out an average of $10,400 for each pot smoker plucked off the streets by police. Of this more than $7 billion annual total, police costs totaled $3.7 billion, court costs $853 million, and prison costs $3.1 billion. In the nation's two most populous states, California and New York, taxpayers are faced with an annual marijuana enforcement bill of more than $1 billion.
Not surprisingly, California and New York lead the nation in marijuana arrests, with more than 60,000 in the Golden State in 2002 and more than 57,000 in the Empire State. But when the numbers are crunched to arrive at per capita marijuana arrest rates, the hotbeds of marijuana law enforcement are all conservative heartland states. The state where one is most likely to get popped for pot is Nebraska, with 458 arrests per 100,000 citizens, followed by Louisiana (398), Wyoming (386), Kentucky (364), and Illinois (359). The national average was 239 marijuana arrests for 100,000 population. Only Illinois scored in the top five in both actual arrests and arrests per capita.
What all those arrests have accomplished is difficult to determine, the study found. While marijuana arrests have increased dramatically in the past decade, rising from 287,850 in 1991 to 755,000 in 2003, the increased arrest rates "have not been associated with a reduction in marijuana use, reduced marijuana availability, a reduction in the number of new marijuana users, reduced treatment admissions, reduced emergency room mentions of marijuana, any reduction in marijuana potency, or any increases in the price of marijuana," the study reported.
The report is an "indictment" of current marijuana policy said NORML executive director Allen St. Pierre. "Public policies are measured by their ability to produce intended results," St. Pierre said. "The stated goal of criminal marijuana prohibition is to deter marijuana use and promote public health. As the data show, the current prohibition-oriented policy clearly does neither. Rather, the enforcement of state and local marijuana laws unnecessarily costs American taxpayers billions of dollars annually, disproportionately impacts the lives of young people and African Americans, and encourages approximately one million teenagers to become entrepreneurs in the criminal drug trade."
A million teen-age pot dealers? Based on data from the annual National Survey of Drug Use and Health, the report found that the nation's black market in drugs supports more than 4.6 million drug sellers. As report author Gettman noted, while the NSDUH data does not disaggregate the data based on the type of drug sold, marijuana is by far the most commonly sold drug, and the NSDUH undercounts actual drug use and sales, so the figure of 4.6 million marijuana sellers is probably accurate. Of those, 23%, or about one million, were under the age of 18. Most of the teen sales are small-time, the study found, and most of the sellers were only occasional sellers, but some 27% sold pot more than 10 times in a year. But even if the sales are small-time and occasional, the consequence can be a serious felony marijuana distribution bust.
While the report has been consciously crafted for use by local activists and state and local reporters, press response has been less than hoped for so far, said St. Pierre. "This is a report that was researched, written, and published for local media outlets to use; we even went as far as producing state cheat-sheets, so even the laziest producer or editor could easily access all this information, but the response so far has been profoundly disappointing. Our full release started last week, when we sent it out to the chapters and like-minded organizations, then over the weekend, we sent it out to all 100-plus Associated Press outlets, but so far we have had only six or seven mentions," he said. "The Wall Street Journal and USA Today both turned down exclusives, which is a shame, because the report is really groomed to appeal to USA Today's McNews-like qualities."
Part of the problem, St. Pierre suggested, was competition on a bad news weekend. "You had that Atlanta shooting, and the media were on that almost around the clock, and they still are. Atlanta Journal Constitution editor Cynthia Tucker told me she had had the report sitting on her desk all week, but had been overwhelmed by the shooting and hunt for the shooter. We hope we'll see something on the backside of this."
But even if the media isn't biting, said St. Pierre, activists can still use the report. "We told our chapters to print out everything and then start approaching everyone from the dogcatcher on up. This report serves as a beginning point for discussion. Our members can ask the politicians about the arrests and the costs, and we can start to speak very specifically about shifting priorities," he said. "Drug reformers have long had a hard time reaching out to minority communities, and this report can help. We can show interest groups and professional organizations like the NAACP that their people are being disproportionately affected by marijuana prohibition. With so few black people in South Dakota, for example, you have to ask how they are being arrested at such high rates. It is not necessarily deliberate, but they are in the crosshairs of the system, and this report demonstrates it quite clearly."