Millions to fight marijuana, with little to show for it
Fraser writes on public policy issues for the DKT Liberty Project, a Washington-based civil liberties organization.
Virginians spend about $99 million each year to enforce state and local marijuana laws. What are taxpayers getting for their money? Not much, according to a recent study.
Jon B. Gettman, a senior fellow at George Mason University's School of Public Policy, prepared the study, titled "Crimes of Indiscretion: Marijuana Arrests in the United States," for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
"Marijuana arrests," says Gettman, "are instruments of a supply-reduction policy. But, he adds, "The doubling of marijuana arrests in the 1990s has produced the opposite of the intended effect in every major indicator. An increase in arrests should produce a reduction in use and the availability of marijuana. However, during the 1990s both use and availability of marijuana increased."
Marijuana possession arrests in the U.S. totaled 260,000 in 1990. By 2003, that figure topped 662,000. Even failed public policies, however, can cost a bundle.
Virginians are, in effect, paying for Washington's marijuana prohibition policies. "The use of criminal law to control the availability and use of marijuana," says Gettman, "is a federal policy that is dependent on local law enforcement for its implementation." And state and local costs quickly add up.
A Boston University economics professor, Jeffrey A. Miron, estimates that state and local officials spend about $5 billion a year enforcing marijuana laws. Virginia's share is: $31 million for police services; $56 million for judicial services; $12 million for correctional services.
The thousands of persons arrested on marijuana possession charges in Virginia each year -- especially teenagers -- pay extra. "Marijuana arrests," Gettman stresses, "make criminals out of otherwise law-abiding citizens. Indeed, the primary consequence of marijuana arrests is the introduction of hundreds of thousands of young people into the criminal justice system."
Once a teenager has a criminal record, other penalties often follow. In Virginia, employers can ask job applicants about arrests, even arrests not leading to a conviction, and a criminal record may bar a person from public housing.
Taking a close look at marijuana arrest patterns, Gettman notes that young people are disproportionally targeted. "The brunt of marijuana law enforcement," he says, "falls on both adolescents and the youngest adults -- on teenagers." Nationally, almost 17 percent of all persons arrested for possession of marijuana were between 15 and 17 years old. Another 26 percent were age 18-20.
And what do Virginians get for these financial and personal costs? In 2002, there were 12,798 marijuana possession arrests in Virginia, but the number of users keeps going up. While 4 percent of Virginia's population was estimated to be monthly users in 1999, in 2002 the estimate stood at 6.4 percent. Nationally, monthly users went from 4.9 percent in 1999 to 6.2 percent in 2002.
The basic problem, says Gettman, is that the "Overall supply of marijuana in the U.S. is far too diversified to be controlled by law enforcement."
If the current marijuana policies are both costly and ineffective, what is the next best strategy? Because marijuana is so widely used, Gettman recommends treating marijuana like a pharmaceutical product subject to Federal Drug Administration testing and regulatory requirements.
By shifting to a policy that treats and taxes marijuana like tobacco and alcohol, Virginians could gain the following benefits: a decrease in illegal activities surrounding drug sales; government control of marijuana quality; better control of underage access to marijuana; and removal of the profit motive that attracts sellers, including a substantial number of teenage sellers who, most frequently, supply other teenagers.
On top of that, Miron estimates a marijuana sales tax would replace the $99 million a year Virginia taxpayers are now spending to enforce unenforceable laws, with a new revenue pipeline bringing in $20 million a year.