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September 1999
Volume 17, Number 9

To Jail You Go
Paul Armentano

America's "War on Drugs" has become primarily a war on marijuana smokers. Federal data released this year reveals almost half of all drug arrests are for marijuana, and that approximately one in seven drug prisoners is now behind bars for marijuana offenses. Research reported by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) in June found that 59,300 Americans are sitting behind bars on marijuana charges.

This conclusion soundly contradicts allegations by drug war hawks that few, if any, marijuana consumers serve hard time for marijuana-related offenses. In truth, the data show that law enforcement routinely target, arrest, and incarcerate marijuana consumers in alarming numbers.

The FAS report, compiled from newly released FBI and Department of Justice data, determined that 42,500 state and federal inmates are imprisoned on marijuana charges, and another 16,800 remain in local jails. In all, marijuana prisoners now compose approximately 14 percent of all state and federal drug inmates at a $1.2 billion annual cost to taxpayers.

The alarming percentage of marijuana inmates is less surprising when one examines recent trends in law enforcement. According to the FBI's latest Uniform Crime Report, state and local police arrested approximately 700,000 Americans on marijuana charges in 1997.

This figure is almost double the number of arrests recorded in 1993, the year President Bill Clinton took office, and pushes the total number of marijuana arrests under his administration to 2.8 million. The 1997 marijuana arrest total is the highest ever, shattering the previous record of 642,000 arrests set in 1996. The new FBI statistics indicate that a marijuana smoker is arrested every 45 seconds in America.

The FBI and DOJ data illustrate a disturbing shift in law enforcement priorities. As the drug-war Leviathan exponentially grows, so does its appetite for otherwise law abiding citizens who smoke marijuana. Nearly half of drug arrests made are for violating marijuana laws, up from 30 percent in 1990, the FBI reported. Of these marijuana arrests, 87 percent are for simple possession only. The remaining 13 percent are for "sale/manufacture," a category that includes all cultivation offenses, even those where defendants grew marijuana solely for personal or medical use.

While marijuana arrests were 30 percent of all drug arrests in 1990, they constituted 44 percent in 1997 (the last year we have statistical data). Arrests for marijuana trafficking actually went down during this period, but marijuana possession arrests soared from 24 percent to more than 38 percent.

While marijuana arrests are soaring to record heights, the percentage of arrests for the sale and manufacture of cocaine and heroin is down more than 50 percent. Cocaine and heroin possession arrests have also dipped dramatically since 1990, falling from one-third percent of all drug arrests to just over one-quarter, while marijuana trafficking arrests have also slipped marginally.

Clearly, law enforcement is focusing away from hard drug trafficking enforcement, which often presents inflated safety risks to police. They are trying to justify their snowballing budgets and increased manpower by targeting recreational marijuana users, who seldom offer violent resistance. (The federal anti-drug budget went from $1.5 billion in 1980 to 17 billion in fiscal year 1999.)

Despite politicians' and law enforcement's fixation on penalizing marijuana smokers, there remains no evidence that criminal penalties effectively deter marijuana use. Presently, ten states treat simple marijuana possession as a noncriminal offense, substituting a small fine in lieu of jail. The only U.S. federal study ever to compare marijuana use patterns among these decriminalized states and those that retain criminal penalties found that "decriminalization has had virtually no effect on either marijuana use or on related attitudes about marijuana use among young people."

Most recently, the National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine reaffirmed in March that, "There is little evidence that decriminalization of marijuana use necessarily leads to a substantial increase in marijuana use." This February ushered the release of the government's most expensive anti-drug offensive in history. Of the $18 billion appropriated for anti-drug expenditures in 1999, several billion will go directly toward arresting and jailing marijuana users.

However, polls show that a growing number of Americans support non-criminal approaches to addressing the marijuana issue. For example, voters in Oregon voted 2-to-1 last year to reject a newly-passed state law reinstating criminal penalties for the possession of less than one ounce of marijuana. In addition, voters in five states--Alaska, California, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington-- soundly approved ballot initiatives exempting medical marijuana users from state criminal penalties. Arizona voters extended these protections to all minor drug offenders.

Clearly, Americans reject the notion that our drug policy options remain limited to maintaining the status quo. As with most issues, they advocate another option: one the anti-drug warriors fight. People may not yet be willing to undertake a market approach to marijuana, but no longer will they accept the human casualties and financial burdens inherent in maintaining criminal marijuana prohibition.

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Paul Armentano is publications director for the NORML Foundation, a Washington, D.C., based research and legal foundation that examines marijuana policies. Further Reading: C. Thomas, "Marijuana Arrests and Incarceration in the United States," Federation of American Scientists' Drug Policy Analysis Bulletin 7 (1999): 5-7.

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