Decriminalization of Marijuana In the United State

Since the passage of the Harrison Act in 1914, the federal approach to drug abuse control has included a variety of ways for reducing both the supply of, and demand for, illicit drugs.  At first the supply and demand reduction strategies were grounded in the traditional deterrence model:  Though legislation and criminal penalties, individuals would be discouraged from using drugs; by setting an example of traffickers, the government could force potential dealers to seek out other economic pursuits.  In time, other components were added such as enforcement, treatment, education, and pre-venting for the would-be user.

During the 1970s it became apparent that the war on drugs was winning few, if any, battles.  New avenues for supply and demand reduction were added such as Coast Guard, Customs, and Drug Enforcement Administration operatives charged with intercepting drug shipments into the United States from foreign ports.  On the surface, none of these strategies seemed to have an effect on illicit drug use.

In 1988 The White House anti-drug policy was zero-tolerance.  Zero tolerance meant: (1) that if there were no drug abusers there would be no drug problem, (2) that the market for drugs is created not only by availability, but by demand, (3) that drug abuse starts as a willful act, (4) that the perception that drug users are powerless to act against the drug availability and peer pressure is an erroneous one, (5) that most illegal drug users can choose to their behaviors and must be held responsible if they do not, (6) that individual freedom does not include the right to self and societal destruction, (7) that public tolerance for drug abuse must be reduced to zero (Drug Abuse Report, April 19, 1988: 6; Drug Abuse Report, May 3,1988: 1-3;U.S. Department of Transportation, 1988).

The current drug policy in the United States is reminiscent of alcohol Prohibition.  With the enactment of the Volstead Act in 1919, America embarked on a social experiment known as Prohibition. Prohibitionists rejected the idea that people could be trusted to drink in moderation, arguing that alcohol use inevitably led to moral corruption and undesirable behavior. Accepting these premises led Congress to conclude that a federal ban on the production and sale of alcohol would go a long way toward reducing crime and addressing a variety of other social problems. Within a decade, however, Americans discovered that the criminally enforced prohibition of alcohol produced harmful side effects. The rise of black markets empowered organized crime to an unprecedented degree.

In some of America’s largest cities, local governments had been heavily corrupted by the influence of organized crime. The black market provided minors with easy access to bootlegged alcohol, which was frequently of poor quality and unsafe to drink. Faced with the disastrous consequences of Prohibition, Congress decided in 1933 to repeal the Volstead Act. Since that time, the government has implemented the much more successful policy of focusing law enforcement efforts on irresponsible alcohol users who endanger the rights of others. Unfortunately, current drug policy fails to take into account the lessons of Prohibition. The law regards all users as abusers, and the result has been the creation of an unnecessary class of lawbreakers.

Current legal drugs such as alcohol and tobacco have a far worse effect on the body than marijuana.  No evidence exists that anyone has ever died of a marijuana overdose.  Tests performed on mice have shown that the ratio of cannabinoids (the chemicals in marijuana that make you stoned) necessary for overdose to the amount necessary for intoxication is 40,000:1. For comparison’s sake, that ratio for alcohol is generally between 4:1 and 10:1. Alcohol overdoses kill about 5,000 yearly but marijuana overdoses kill no one as far as anyone can tell (MacCoun, Rueter, 2001).

Marijuana is psychoactive because it stimulates certain brain receptors, but it does not produce toxins that kill them (like alcohol), and it does not wear them out as other drugs may. There is no evidence that marijuana use is a cause of brain damage. Studies by Dr. Robert Heath claimed the contrary in experiments on monkeys, but Heath’s work has been sharply criticized by the Institute of Medicine and the National Academy of Sciences on three primary counts: (1) its insufficient sample size (only four monkeys), (2) its failure to control experimental bias, and (3) its misidentification of normal monkey brain structure as “damaged”

A far superior experiment by the National Center for Toxicological Research (NCTR) involving 64 rhesus monkeys that were exposed to daily or weekly doses of marijuana smoke for a year found no evidence of structural or neurochemical changes in the brains of rhesus monkeys. In fact, following the publication of two 1977 JAMA studies, the American Medical Association (AMA) officially announced its support for the decriminalization of marijuana.

Contrary to a 1987 television commercial sponsored by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America (PDFA), marijuana does not “flatten” brain waves either. In the commercial, a normal human brain wave was compared to what was supposedly the (much flatter) brain wave of a 14-year-old high on marijuana. It was actually the brain wave of a coma patient. PDFA lied about the data, and had to pull the commercial off of the air when researchers complained to the television networks.

In reality, marijuana has the effect of slightly increasing alpha-wave activity. Alpha waves are generally associated with meditative and relaxed states, which are often associated with human creativity.

Marijuana does impair short-term memory, but only during intoxication. Although the authoritative studies on marijuana use seem to agree that there is no residual impairment following intoxication, persistent impairment of short-term memory has been noted in chronic marijuana smokers up to 6 and 12 weeks following abstinence (MacCoun, Rueter, 2001).

It is not unlawful to possess alcohol or tobacco, but it is unlawful to possess marijuana.  In 2002, the DEA made 5,502 marijuana-related arrests, representing 18.6% of the total drug arrests made by the agency during the year. Agencies participating in DEA’s Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program made 8,247 arrests in 2002. This program is a joint Federal and State effort in which DEA contributes funding, training, equipment, and investigative and aircraft resources to participating States to eradicate domestically cultivated marijuana. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), of the estimated 1,538,813 State and local arrests for drug abuse violations in 2002, about 5.4% were for marijuana sale/manufacturing and 39.9% were for possession.

There were more than 700,000 marijuana arrests in the United States in 1997.  This was the largest number in U.S. history. Of these arrests, 87% were for possession rather than sale or manufacture. The percentage of possession arrests has been at least 80% for more than a decade, and it has been rising throughout the 1990s. The total number of annual marijuana arrests, having dipped in the 1980s, has been rising sharply since 1992 (MacCoun, Rueter, 2001).

It is often asserted that these arrests rarely lead to any substantial penalty, and that therefore the costs of the current high-arrest policy both to those arrested and to the correctional system, are modest. Some recent figures from the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) cast doubt on that assertion.  Calculations based on recent BJS reports suggest that, at any one time, 59,300 prisoners charged with or convicted of violating marijuana laws (3.3% of the total incarcerated population) are behind bars, at a total cost to taxpayers of some $1.2 billion per year. They represent almost 12% of the total federal prison population and about 2.7% of the state prison population. Of the people incarcerated in federal and state prison and in local jails, 37,500 were charged with marijuana offenses only and an additional 21,800 with both marijuana offenses and other controlled-substance offenses. Of the marijuana-only offenders, 15,400 are incarcerated for possession, not trafficking (Marijuana Policy Project Foundation, 2004).

Adding the jail and prison estimates gives a total of 59,300 people incarcerated for marijuana offenses. Using the adjusted estimates for “marijuana only” gives a jail-plus-prison total of 37,500 people incarcerated for marijuana without any other drugs involved. (To be even more precise, this figure ought to be adjusted to reflect the fact that the “lead charge” reflected in the Survey of Inmates may not be the only, or even the primary, reason a person is in prison; the data does not tell us whether this adjustment would, on balance, be up or down.) Finally, using the adjusted estimates for possession gives a jail-plus-prison total of 15,400 people incarcerated for possessing only marijuana.  At an average annual cost per prisoner-year of more than $20,000, the total cost to taxpayers of marijuana-related incarceration reaches more than $1.2 billion per year. (This does not include the cost of investigating, arresting, and prosecuting the hundreds of thousands of marijuana users arrested every year (Grinspoon,1994).

Despite the fact that drug use is more or less consistent across racial lines, many punitive drug laws are based on beliefs that certain communities of color commonly abuse certain substances. Due to the racial injustices caused by the drug war, supporting drug policy reform can help end racial inequality.

Although African Americans comprise only 12.2 percent of the population and 13 percent of drug users, they make up 38 percent of those arrested for drug offenses and 59 percent of those convicted of drug offenses causing critics to call the war on drugs the “New Jim Crow”(MacCoun, Rueter, 2001).  The higher arrest rates for African Americans and Latinos do not reflect a higher abuse rate in these communities but rather a law enforcement emphasis on inner city areas where drug use and sales Once released from prison, felony disenfranchisement laws often perpetuate the disparate effects impacting citizens of color. 1.4 million African American men have permanently lost their right to vote because of a felony conviction even though their sentences have been served (MacCoun, Rueter, 2001). This rate of disenfranchisement is seven times the national average.

The racial disparities in drug arrests and convictions have had a devastating effect on families. Of the 1.5 million minority children who had a parent incarcerated in 1999, African American children were nearly nine times more likely to have a parent incarcerated than white children and Latino children were three times more likely to have a parent incarcerated than white children (MacCoun, Rueter, 2001).

The racial inequalities of the war on drugs also disproportionately affect pregnant women of color. Despite similar or equal rates of illegal drug use during pregnancy, African American women are ten times more likely to be reported to child welfare agencies for prenatal drug use. In a recent Supreme Court case, Ferguson vs. the City of Charleston, the practice of drug testing pregnant women without their consent and prosecuting the mothers for “distributing an illegal substance” to an unborn child through the umbilical cord was challenged under the Fourth Amendment right to privacy. Out of the 30 women who were arrested at the South Carolina hospital, 29 were African American. The one white woman arrested was married to a Black man – a fact noted on her medical record (MacCoun, Rueter, 2001).

Drug policy does not affect all populations in the same way. In several key ways, women have been targeted and differently affected by current policies and trends. Women of color in particular have been targeted for punishment and public humiliation.

Women face unique stigmatization for their drug use, and experience discrimination in their ability to obtain treatment and participate in research protocols. Not until the 1970’s was the issue of women’s addiction even addressed in the literature. Treatment was largely designed with men in mind, programs for many years simply refused to admit women. While treatment remains scarce for all people, women today experience more barriers to treatment than men. Women’s use of and relationship to drugs is often affected by their experiences with domestic violence and their responsibilities for family and children. Women are also disproportionately affected by laws and regulations regarding drug use and welfare reform.

Although men still far outnumber women in arrests for drug related crimes, women represent the fasted growing population of people being imprisoned for drug offenses. Since 1986 the number of women in prison has increased 400%. For women of color the rise is 800% (MacCoun, Rueter, 2001). Women are also serving harsher sentences. Women often incur long sentences precisely because they refuse, or are unable, to give prosecutors evidence about their husband’s or boyfriend’s crimes and connections. Indeed, a 1997 review of over 60,000 federal drug cases by the Minneapolis Star Tribune shows that men are more likely to sell out their women to get a shorter sentence than vice versa.

The benefits of marijuana prohibition and its enforcement have long been the subject of debate. For example, a National Academy of Sciences report recently concluded that “there is little evidence that decriminalization of marijuana use necessarily leads to a substantial increase in marijuana use. However one judges the merits of that debate, the latest figures cast serious doubt on the argument that marijuana incarceration costs are low enough to be ignored.

It is impractical to continue waging a war against drugs in America.  Legalization of marijuana is most likely far off.  However, decriminalization is needed now.  We as a country are wasting billions of dollars, hurting our community especially low income and minority communities, by arresting and incarcerating marijuana users.  Clearly, current approaches are ineffective and inefficient. Ultimately, their effect amounts to throwing taxpayers’ money down the drain in a crusade that is not warranted by the danger posed by the substance. It has been maintained that drugs, including marijuana, are not dangerous because they are illegal but rather are illegal because they are dangerous. This is perhaps true of other types of drugs, but not of marijuana. We should state this clearly once and for all, for public good: it is time to stop this crusade.

As far as marijuana is concerned, only behavior causing demonstrable harm to others should be prohibited: illegal trafficking, selling to minors and impaired driving.

We have been told that drugs were made criminal because they are dangerous. Analysis of this clearly shows how far this is from truth. When marijuana was introduced in the legislation on narcotics, there was no debate, no justification; in fact many members did not even know what marijuana was.  Early drug legislation was largely based on a moral panic, racist sentiment and a notorious absence of debate.

In my view, it is clear that if the aim of public policy is to diminish consumption and supply of drugs, specifically marijuana, all signs indicate complete failure.  In effect, the main social costs of marijuana are a result of public policy choices, primarily its continued criminalization, while the consequences of its use represent a small fraction of the social costs attributable to the use of illegal drugs.

Billions of dollars have been sunk into enforcement without any greater effect. There are more consumers, more regular users and more regular adolescent users. Billions of dollars have been poured into enforcement in an effort to reduce supply, without any greater effect. Marijuana is more available than ever, it is cultivated on a large scale and making organized crime more powerful. And there have been tens of thousands of arrests and convictions for the possession of marijuana and thousands of people have been incarcerated. However, use trends remain totally unaffected and the gap between the law and public compliance continues to widen.

Marijuana itself is not a cause of other drug use.  Marijuana itself is not a cause of delinquency and crime; and marijuana is not a cause of violence.

Physical dependency on marijuana is virtually non-existent. Psychological dependency is moderate and is certainly lower than for nicotine or alcohol.

It is time to recognize what is patently obvious: our policies have been ineffective, because they are poor policies.