Prohibition's Burden on State and Local Governments

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During the 1980’s mandatory/minimum sentences for distribution of schedule I drugs, including marijuana, were reinstated by the Congress.

Most drug possession offenses end up in the local courts, primarily county or city courts. However, the volume of drug cases in the federal courts has been increasing, and this increases the economic costs to the criminal justice system produced by marijuana’s schedule I status. This scheduling status requires that state and local authorities give marijuana use, sale, and cultivation equal enforcement status with other schedule I and II drugs, such as heroin and cocaine. At the federal level the significance of devoting resources to the ongoing prosecution of marijuana-related offenses amidst increasing demands on the criminal justice system must be rationally addressed by the executive branch in accordance with this aspect of the legislative history of the Controlled Substances Act.

Drug cases not only consume resources, they also divert them. For example, the federal courts must give preferential scheduling to criminal over civil cases. Consequently, the increasing caseload of drug filings inhibits, if not paralyzes, the courts’ ability to handle civil matters in anything resembling a timely fashion.

While there is much to study about the effect on the courts of drug cases in general, the savings attributed to decriminalizing marijuana possession cases in California has been studied. A history of California’s marijuana laws and its enactment of decriminalization notes what prompted consideration of this now longstanding policy.

“As California entered the 1970’s, it was clear that marijuana law enforcement had become an immense legal and social problem in the state. For the first time, policymakers began to seriously question the underpinnings of the prohibition-based public policy toward marijuana.”(28)

The following data was compiled in a successful attempt to preserve California’s policy of issuing a fine of $100 for marijuana possession. (29)(30)

In 1974 one fourth of all the adult felony arrests in California were for marijuana. Huge jumps in the number of felony marijuana arrests since the mid-1960’s caused a logjam of felony marijuana cases in the courts, over 38,000 in 1975. In 1969 the legislature responded to the increasing case loads by throwing marijuana cases into the lower courts, then as they filled up in the 1970’s they tried to ease the pressure with programs to divert offenders into treatment programs. Rather than decriminalize completely, the Moscone Act (creating a $100 fine for possession of one ounce or less) kept marijuana as a criminal offense but out of the courts. The number of marijuana cases were down to less than 8000 in 1978.

In 1985, 40,761 citations were issued in California, producing over $4 million in fines. It would have cost $2875 each to arrest and try those offenders. It is estimated that the Moscone Act has saved California $100 million annually since it’s enactment.

These are the estimated savings for the period 1976 – 1985: $464 million in arrest costs, $441 million in court costs, $38 million in prison costs, and $14 million in parole costs.(31)

A proposal to recriminalize marijuana in California by providing an alternative six month prison sentence and/or a $500 fine would have increased court costs six times what they were for California in 1985 when the proposal was made.

These figures illustrate the burden marijuana’s present restrictive scheduling places on the criminal justice systems of individual states. All states must enforce marijuana cultivation laws.