The consequences and costs of marijuana prohibition

Katherine Beckett & Steve Herbert
American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) | University of Washington (Seattle)
March 2009

publicationThis report draws on a wide range of data sources to assess the consequences and costs of enforcing criminal laws that prohibit the use of marijuana. Despite widespread and longstanding disagreement about the continuation of marijuana prohibition, the number and rate of marijuana arrests have increased significantly in the United States since the early 1990s. These arrests are not evenly distributed across the population, but are disproportionately imposed on African Americans. Our findings regarding the costs and consequences of marijuana prohibition, as well as state and local efforts to relax it, are summarized below.

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Finding 1: Intensified enforcement of marijuana laws does not achieve the stated goals of marijuana prohibition.

• Marijuana arrests in the U.S. have increased dramatically since 1992. In 2006, there were a record 829,625 marijuana arrests. Nearly half (44%) of the roughly 1.9 million annual drug arrests were for marijuana.

• Despite increases in marijuana arrests, the price of marijuana dropped; its average potency increased; it has become more readily available; and marijuana use rates increased during the 1990s, the decade of increasing rapidly increasing marijuana arrests. It thus appears that the goals of marijuana prohibition have not been achieved.

Finding 2: The collective costs of marijuana prohibition for the public are significant; The personal costs to individuals and their families are also substantial, even in the absence of incarceration

• The enforcement of the laws prohibiting marijuana consumes significant fiscal and organizational resources that could usefully be allocated toward other pressing public safety goals.

• Marijuana arrests are not evenly distributed across the population, but are disproportionately imposed on African Americans.

• The enforcement of marijuana laws imposes a range of social, psychological, and familial costs on those arrested for marijuana law violations. A complete accounting of the costs and benefits of marijuana prohibition requires consideration of these non-monetary costs.

• A full and adequate analysis of the cost of enforcing current marijuana laws requires better and more complete record-keeping and data reporting by the police and others in the criminal justice system.

Finding 3: Decriminalizing marijuana and deprioritizing enforcement of Marijuana laws Leads to no significant increase in marijuana use.

• Many states and localities have either decriminalized marijuana or deprioritized the enforcement of marijuana laws.

• There is no evidence that the decriminalization of marijuana by certain states or the deprioritization of marijuana enforcement in Seattle and other municipalities caused an increase in marijuana use or related problems.

• This conclusion is consistent with the findings of studies indicating that the increasing enforcement of marijuana laws has little impact on marijuana use rates, and that the decriminalization of marijuana in U.S. states and elsewhere did not increase marijuana use.

The human costs associated with enforcing marijuana laws can be high even in the absence of conviction or incarceration. These costs, along with the absence of evidence that criminalization reduces marijuana use and any harm associated with it, underscore the need to reconsider the criminalization of marijuana.