Jon Gettman is a long time contributor to HIGH TIMES. A former National Director of NORML, Jon has a Ph.D. in public policy and regional economic development and consults with attorneys, advocates, and non-profits on cannabis related research and public policy issues. On October 8, 2002, along with a coalition of organizations, he filed a new petition to have cannabis rescheduled under federal law. This column will track that petition's progress.
Marijuana in the United States: Still Busted After All These Years
This may come as a shock, but marijuana is illegal in the United States, marijuana laws remain relatively harsh in most parts of the country, and marijuana arrests have nearly doubled since 1991.
There’s been a lot of good news in recent years about local reform efforts, including the advance of medical marijuana in California, adoption of a medical marijuana law in Michigan, passage of decriminalization in Massachusetts, and the recent expansion of medical marijuana protections in Maine. But these positive developments should not obscure the unpleasant and demanding reality that marijuana prohibition remains firmly entrenched in most of the United States.
Here are some of the findings of this report:
• There are wide disparities between states in both marijuana arrest rates and the severity of penalties. These differences bear little relationship to rates of use, while the penalty structure actually serves as a price support for the illicit market.
• Young people and African-Americans are disproportionately affected by marijuana arrests.
• The costs of arresting marijuana users are substantial, and raise serious questions about the cost-effectiveness of marijuana prohibition.
This is the most extensive collection of data on marijuana prohibition ever assembled. The Marijuana Policy Almanac that accompanies this report includes rankings of U.S. states according to penalties for marijuana possession, marijuana arrest rates, and the number of marijuana users. Rankings are also provided for U.S. counties according to marijuana arrest rates, marijuana
Tables also detail local police agency arrests for marijuana offenses. Data is provided on state-level criminal justice system expenses along with a general estimate of the costs of marijuana law enforcement. Also, short summary reports are provided for each state reviewing this collected data.
Here are some of the revelations that emerge from this review:
• Marijuana arrests have nearly doubled from 1991 to 2008, increasing by 150% during the 1990s and increasing steadily in recent years, producing an annualized change of 6.56% per year during this period.
• Thirty states, plus the District of Columbia. have maximum penalties of six months to a year in jail for possession of about one ounce of marijuana. State law in Florida provides for a maximum penalty of five years. For possession of two ounces of marijuana, 18 states have maximum penalties of one year, and 16 have maximum penalties of more than one year, including maximum sentences of 10 years in Arkansas, Georgia, and Oregon and seven years in Missouri.
• The national marijuana arrest rate is 290 per 100,000. The jurisdictions with the highest marijuana arrest rates are the District of Columbia (677), New York (481), and Kentucky (479). The states with the lowest are Vermont (149), Montana (145), and Hawaii (119).
• Males aged 15 to 24 comprise 52% of all marijuana arrests. While the national rate of marijuana possession arrests is 248 per 100,000, the arrest rate for males aged 15 to 19 is 1,911 per 100,000.
• While the marijuana-use rate for African-Americans is only about 25% greater than for whites, the marijuana possession arrest rate for blacks is three times larger. This is not a regional disparity, but is seen in every state and most counties.
• Using the same method of calculation used by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, marijuana arrests cost state and local governments $10.3 billion in 2006.
• Marijuana arrests represent 6% of all arrests. In many states, they represent the fifth, sixth, or seventh largest category of arrests.
• The clearance rate (i.e. the percentage of crimes solved by arrest) for murder, rape, robbery, assault, burglary, larceny, and motor vehicle theft was 26% in 2007, meaning that no one is arrested for three quarters of these serious crimes. In this environment, time and resources spent on roughly 850,000 marijuana arrests per year represent a significant opportunity cost.
It remains true that only a small percentage of marijuana users are arrested each year, between 3% and 6% depending on their state of residence. It is also clear from the data that marijuana prohibition is a costly failure that had little or no impact on marijuana usage or availability. However neither point should obscure the urgent need for a renewed focus on reforming marijuana laws at the state and local level in every area of the county.
This research was funded by the Marijuana Policy Project, which was responsible for important victories in Michigan and Massachusetts on Election Day in 2008 and actively pursues state-level reforms in many parts of the country. Other organizations at the national and local level are involved with several activities that make valuable contributions to advancing reform of marijuana laws. The data in this report provides tremendous detail about the impacts and costs of marijuana laws, specifics that can and should focus critical attention on the enforcement of prohibition in every state in the country. But this report also clarifies the need to shatter some widely held myths about marijuana in the United States.
Marijuana possession is subject to severe penalties throughout the United States. People are arrested for marijuana possession, they are subject to severe penalties, and marijuana arrests have been steadily increasing over the last two decades. Marijuana arrests divert criminal justice resources from more important public priorities, such as responding to violent and predatory crime. Marijuana arrests have a disproportionate impact on African-Americans in every state in the nation. Decriminalization and medical marijuana policies in several states are positive developments, but they don’t change these fundamental aspects of marijuana prohibition in the United States.
So what can be done about this? As has been emphasized here and elsewhere over and over again, individuals who care about this issue must get involved in the political process. Read this report, learn about marijuana arrests, use, and related information about marijuana in your home state, and get involved. Support marijuana reform organizations; contact your legislators and media at the state and national level. Most important, though, is the need to maintain a strategic focus.
Incremental reforms such as decriminalization of possession of small amounts of marijuana and protections for medical marijuana patients are valuable and ethical goals worthy of support. But activists need to understand that state-level marijuana laws are severe, outdated, and badly in need of reform. Penalties for possession need to be reduced, if not eliminated, and marijuana laws need to be reappraised in every state in the nation. It is often claimed that the public doesn’t want to send people to jail for marijuana possession but the laws are needed to deter use. The data demonstrates that the laws do not deter use, marijuana arrests are increasing and expensive, and that marijuana arrests detract from more important law enforcement activities. Its’ time to recognize these facts and change the laws.