Ask most people whether billions of dollars should be spent arresting, prosecuting, and incarcerating people for marijuana offenses and the answer will be a resounding "no." Recent polling in Florida indicates over 70% of the state's voters favor legalizing marijuana for medical purposes, which is what makes a just released study by the American Civil Liberties Union entitled The War on Marijuana in Black and White so disturbing. Not only are we spending more money every year trying to lock people up for smoking a plant, we are doing so based on race.
According to the report, every 41 seconds someone in this country is arrested for a marijuana offense. Between 2001 and 2010, 8.2 million people were arrested on a marijuana charge, 88% of them solely for marijuana possession. The estimated annual cost for enforcement of marijuana laws ranges from a low of 1.2 billion dollars to a high of 6 billion dollars. Unfortunately, state and local agencies are permitted to use marijuana arrests to obtain federal grants, so those agencies are actually incentivized to arrest people for marijuana offenses.
The statistics from Florida are equally disturbing:
- In 2010, the latest year for which statistics are available, 57,951 people were arrested in this state for marijuana possession;
- Marijuana arrests accounted for 40.9% of all drug arrests in Florida;
- The state spent $228 million dollars enforcing marijuana laws;
- African-Americans are 4.2 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession, despite the fact that blacks and whites use marijuana at similar rates; and
- Racial disparity for marijuana arrests are actually increasing in this state.
At a time when every law enforcement dollar counts, it is incomprehensible that marijuana laws still continue to wreak havoc on those people victimized by such laws. A marijuana arrest can ruin a person's life. Arrests and convictions can impact student financial aid, employment opportunities, child custody determinations, housing opportunities and the right to vote and the right to carry a firearm. Additionally, in Florida, a conviction for possession of any controlled substance results in an automatic suspension of a person's driver's license for two years. The effect of a marijuana arrest can last a lifetime. Those people who cannot afford to hire an attorney to challenge their arrests are the ones who suffer most.
The only logical solution is to legalize, regulate, and tax marijuana use. As so eloquently stated in the ACLU report:
Like America's larger War on Drugs, America's War on marijuana has been a failure. The aggressive enforcement of marijuana possession laws needlessly ensnares hundreds of thousands of people in the criminal justice system, crowds our jails, is carried out in a racially biased manner, wastes millions of taxpayer's dollars and has not reduced marijuana use or availability. Marijuana possession arrests also waste precious police resources and divert law enforcement from responding to and solving serious crimes. It is time for marijuana possession arrests to end.
Anything less than full legalization serves only to continue the racist enforcement of unjust laws.