Report by U.W. Researchers Finds Marijuana Prohibition Is Not Achieving Its Aims

A report issued by two University of Washington researchers finds that laws criminalizing marijuana are not achieving their goals. The report concludes that arresting, prosecuting, incarcerating, and seizing the property of people who commit marijuana-related offenses doesn't reduce use. And lessening or removing penalties doesn't increase it.

"The report finds that the 'war on marijuana' is quite costly in both financial and human terms, and the prohibition of marijuana has not measurably reduced its use. This is a clear call for us to reconsider our laws and policies on marijuana," says Alison Holcomb, ACLU of Washington drug policy director.

The report, "The Consequences and Costs of Marijuana Prohibition," was produced by Katherine Beckett and Steve Herbert, associate professors in the University of Washington's Law, Societies, and Justice Program. Beckett and Herbert analyzed data and conducted in-depth interviews in order to compare the fiscal, public safety, and human costs of current marijuana policy against marijuana's price, potency, availability and use. The report was commissioned by the ACLU of Washington.

Beckett and Herbert found that enforcing marijuana laws consumes major portions of government budgets. The domestic law enforcement component of the federal drug control budget more than doubled from 1991 to 2002, to $9.5 billion, and marijuana arrests accounted for nearly all of the increase in drug arrests during that time. Furthermore, 28,000 people are serving time in federal or state prison for marijuana offenses; the researchers estimate that their incarceration costs over $600 million a year, a figure that does not include the costs of detaining marijuana offenders in county jails or supervising them after release. The authors note that Harvard University economist Jeffrey Miron concludes that marijuana legalization would save $7.7 billion per year in government expenditures – resources that could be redirected to more important priorities like violent crimes and property crimes.

The researchers also found that marijuana arrests in the U.S. have increased dramatically over the past 15 years, now constituting nearly half of the almost 2 million drug arrests each year. Yet increased enforcement has not produced the government's desired results:

  • the price of marijuana has dropped;
  • its average potency has increased;
  • it has become more readily available; and
  • use rates have often increased during times of escalating enforcement.

On the other hand, states and localities that have decriminalized marijuana possession, passed medical marijuana laws, or adopted measures making marijuana use the lowest law enforcement priority have been able to redirect law enforcement resources to other public safety issues without experiencing any corresponding increase in marijuana use.

Moreover, the authors found marijuana prohibition carries serious human costs, and these are disproportionately imposed on African Americans. The researchers interviewed individuals in the Puget Sound area who were arrested for marijuana-related offenses. Besides the financial burdens of attorneys' fees, court fines, lost income, and seized assets, they also suffered emotional stress and family tensions. And they lost faith in a legal system that imposes the long-term stigma of a criminal conviction for an act engaged in by over 40% of the American population.