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May 6, 2005 - The Drug War Chronicle (US Web)

War on Drugs Shifts to War on Marijuana

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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 30%.

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 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:

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 outcomes."

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."

The Full Report from The Sentencing Project, The War on Marijuana: The Transformation of the War on Drugs in the 1990s, is available here (PDF Format)

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