Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Is Legalizing Marijuana Beneficial?

By Matthew Brosmer

Late last year, Gallup released a poll showing 58 percent of Americans favoring marijuana legalization, while 39 percent were not in favor of it. This is a large increase from 48 percent favoring and 50 not favoring in 2012. As of now, two states have legalized - Colorado and Washington State; 16 states have decriminalized small amounts of marijuana possession; and 20 states plus D.C. have medical marijuana laws. And this month, Washington, D.C. City Council moved to decriminalize marijuana. Congress will have final say, though, since D.C. laws are subject to approval by Congress.

Marijuana legalization could, in fact, help society; there will be benefits in the economy and in the criminal justice system.The economy would improve, bringing back industrial hemp jobs, scientific research on medical marijuana and hemp-related products, and other marijuana related jobs such as working in a dispensary. According to reform advocate and former head of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) Jon Gettman, “marijuana prohibition costs nearly $42 billion in lost taxes per year.” When broken down, “marijuana arrests cost taxpayers $10.7 billion annually” and “the diversion of $113 billion from the taxable economy into the illicit economy deprives taxpayers of $31.1 billion annually.”

In 2007, the U.S. Department of Justice, National Drug Intelligence Center released “The Economic Impact of Illicit Drug Use on American Society,” which found illicit drug use cost more than $193 billion in three sections: crime, health, and productivity.

The criminal justice system could potentially see enormous benefits in prison, jail, parole, and probation reduction, along with the money spent on people with drug convictions. According to the 2012 Uniform Crime Report data, 82.2 percent of drug arrests involved small amounts. Of that percent, marijuana possession makes up 42.4 percent, 51.6 percent of all drug possession arrests. Marijuana arrests accounted for 48.3 percent or 749,825 arrests of the 1,552,432 of all drug-related arrests. That is typical; sometimes it is more than 50 percent. Disaggregating marijuana-related arrests into possession versus sales and manufacturing, possession of small amounts of marijuana is usually between 85 and 90 percent. Police would not have to waste their time arresting people smoking marijuana, and then they will be able to divert their resources toward more serious offenses.
The corrections population –  state and federal prison, local jail, parole, or probatio–n –  would not have the burden of dealing with all of these drug-related crimes. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistic’s "Correction Population in the United States" data, the total correction population is 6.978 million, of which 56.9 percent were on probation, 12.2 percent on parole, 21.6 percent in prison, and 10.5 in local jail. In federal prison, 48 percent of people incarcerated had a drug offense. In state prisons, 16.8 percent had a drug conviction. In 2011, approximately 1 in 4 people on probation had a drug offense. Also, in 2011, 33 percent of the parole population had a drug offense. The corrections population of drug offenses accounted for 25.5 percent or 1,594,443 people in prison, on parole and on probation in 2011.
Arresting and incarcerating people for drug charges is costly. According to Allen St. Pierre, Executive Director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), “Increased marijuana enforcement is associated with greater fiscal and social costs. State and local justice costs for marijuana arrests are now estimated to be $7.6 billion, approximately $10,400 per arrest. Of this total, annual police costs are $3.7 billion, judicial/legal costs are $853 million, and correctional costs are $3.1 billion.”

The average cost per person in state prison varies by state. The
Bureau of Justice Statistics stated, “The mean state corrections expenditure per inmate was $28,323 in 2010,  although a quarter of states spent $40,175 or more.”
It makes me wonder why incarcerating people for drug offenses is a rational thing to do. According to The Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA), incarceration costs $25,900. Other types of treatment are less expensive and are better solutions. Depending on the type of service, regular outpatient ($1,800), intensive outpatient ($2,500), methadone maintenance ($3,900), short-term residential ($4,400) and long-term residential ($6,800) services save in the range from $19,100 to $24,100 per person with an addiction. This will save tens of thousands of dollars, which could be spent on more people rather than incarcerating them. Also, while in prison, the person might not receive adequate substance abuse treatment to help him or her get rid of their addiction, which raises the chance for the person to be re-arrested, along with collateral consequences from being arrested such as not being able to receive federal funds.
The social costs and collateral consequences are much more damaging for society. People are starting to understand the benefits of medical marijuana and the cost of arresting and incarcerating people for marijuana possession. 
Matt is a former JPI intern. He is currently an intern at the Drug Policy Alliance in Washington, D.C.

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