A study of FBI arrest and
conviction data by a Washington think-tank has underscored a dramatic shift
in US drug policy in the decade of the 1990s. "The
War on Marijuana: The Transformation of the War on Drugs,", released
Tuesday by the Sentencing Project, reports that from 1992 to 2002, the
proportion of drug arrests involving marijuana increased from 28% to 45%
of all drug arrests, while arrests for the much more dangerous cocaine
and heroin decreased from more than half of all drug arrests to less than
After crusades against heroin
in the 1970s and crack cocaine in the 1980s, total drug arrests continued
to spiral upward from 1.1 million in 1990 to more than 1.5 million per
year in 2002. Marijuana arrests accounted for more than 80% of the
increase, the report found.
The "Dell Dude" was
busted for marijuana.
The massive attention to
marijuana should be cause for a reevaluation of the nation's drug policy,
said Sentencing Project research associate and study coauthor Ryan King.
"In reality, the war on drugs as pursued in the 1990s was to a large degree
a war on marijuana," he told the Washington Post. "Marijuana is the
most widely used illegal substance, but that doesn't explain this level
of growth over time... The question is, is this really where we want to
be spending all our money?"
For King and coauthor Marc
Mauer, the answer is clear. Although marijuana law enforcement costs
were pegged at $4 billion annually, "What is empirically evident is that
the growth in marijuana arrests over the 1990s has not led to a decrease
in use or availability, nor an increase in cost," they wrote in the report's
conclusion. "Meanwhile, billions are being spent nationally on the
apprehension and processing of marijuana arrestees with no demonstrable
impact on the use of marijuana itself, or any general reduction in other
criminal behavior. Our analysis of criminal justice processing of
marijuana use over the 1990s suggests that the contemporary approach is
apportioning resources inefficiently at each stage of the system."
While all the marijuana arrests
had no noticeable impact on price, availability, or use levels, they had
a disproportionate impact on the African-American community. Although
blacks constitute only 14% of marijuana users, they made up 30% of all
marijuana arrests, the report noted. In part, that is because police
know if they want to make an easy drug arrest, they go to densely populated
minority neighborhoods where drug dealing and use take place in known locations
in the open.
Where current drug policies
do excel is in creating a legion of people with criminal records that will
make the rest of their lives more difficult. So far this decade,
people have been picked up (or added to) arrest records for marijuana possession
at a rate of more than 600,000 a year.
Although only 6% of marijuana
arrestees were charged with felonies, some 27,000 pot criminals were serving
prison sentences in 2002, giving the lie to the oft-repeated claim by law-and-order
types that "nobody goes to prison for marijuana." In fact, the study
found, more than 6,600 people, or nearly one-quarter of imprisoned marijuana
offenders, were doing prison time simply for possession, and apparently
doing prison time simply for possession. (The Sentencing Project
tables are ambiguous here; the 6,600 number includes those imprisoned for
marijuana whose charges included "No weapon, No importation, No manufacturing,
No laundering, No distribution.") More than 11,000 of those imprisoned
were first-time offenders.
Even though violent crime
was declining throughout the period under study, the report found, marijuana
arrests were going through the roof. Since no similar spike in marijuana
use has been reported, "this growth is probably better understood as the
result of selective law enforcement," the report noted. But rather
than blame a grand conspiracy to "get" marijuana smokers, the Sentencing
Project pointed to a trend toward more aggressive policing, where marijuana
arrests often result from a traffic stop or a street frisk. The authors
also pointed to institutionalized incentives for police departments to
pursue drug crime, such as reaping the rewards of seizing assets.
Police and society may be
paying an opportunity cost for the aggressive enforcement of marijuana
law, the study suggested. Law enforcement priorities are a zero-sum
game, the authors wrote; more money for marijuana law enforcement means
less money for other law enforcement.
"The War on Marijuana" ends
with some specific recommendations:
-- END --
Deprioritize marijuana enforcement.
"As has become policy in jurisdictions such as Seattle and Oakland, law
enforcement agencies should categorize enforcement of marijuana possession
as a low priority so as to conserve police resources for more serious offenses."
Stop arresting people for marijuana
under the "broken windows" school of policing. "Marijuana arrests
in some cities have been justified on the premise that arresting people
for marijuana possession disrupts other, potentially more serious, behaviors.
Such strategies result in substantially increased numbers of low-level
marijuana arrests, with little evidence that they are actually effective
in suppressing other criminal behaviors. Further, they contribute
to the mistrust of law enforcement, particularly in communities of color
that have been disproportionately targeted by such practices."
Drop the charges on low-level
offenders. "Few marijuana possession arrests result in any significant
jail or prison time, yet they are cumulatively quite costly to the court
system through the engagement of prosecutors, defense counsel, judges,
and probation officers. Prosecutors should use their discretion in
appropriate cases to drop charges and/or utilize community resources at
the earliest possible stage of court proceedings in order to effect outcomes
that represent a reasonable allocation of resources."
Drop felony charges to misdemeanors.
"In most states felony drug convictions carry a set of collateral consequences
in addition to whatever punishment is directly imposed. These may
include a ban on receipt of welfare benefits, prohibition on living in
public housing, loss of student loans, and loss of the right to vote.
These punishments place additional burdens on ex-offenders attempting to
reenter the community. Therefore, to the extent that the interests
of justice can be served through a misdemeanor conviction rather than a
felony, prosecutors should use their charging discretion to pursue such
Encourage the debate on marijuana
policy. "National debate on drug issues has too often been characterized
by "soundbites" that distort the policy issues under consideration.
In the case of marijuana, proposals for decriminalization represent an
alternative approach to current policy. Consideration of such options
should be addressed in the context of the findings of this report, including
the substantial criminal justice and social costs involved in the large-scale
prosecution of marijuana offenders. National debate on marijuana
policy, and drug policy generally, should be focused on the most effective
ways of addressing substance abuse and the most efficient allocation of
law enforcement resources."
Federal government butt out.
"The Federal government should defer to local governments to develop their
own approaches to marijuana use and respect the choices of state, county,
and city policymakers. Federal funding should not be tied to a locality's
decision to address marijuana use in only one fashion, namely law enforcement;
rather, it should also encourage and adequately fund alternative strategies.
A number of cities have raised concerns about the emphatic prosecution
of marijuana as putting undue stress upon law enforcement resources, culminating
in calls for and implementations of policy changes. The federal government
should recognize these developments, and respect the choices of communities
and local government agencies."
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