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DPA Fact Sheet Marijuana Decriminalization and Legalization August2013

DPA Fact Sheet Marijuana Decriminalization and Legalization August2013

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Published by: webmaster@drugpolicy.org on Aug 20, 2013
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Drug Policy Alliance | 131 West 33rd Street, 15th Floor, New York, NY 10001nyc@drugpolicy.org | 212.613.8020 voice | 212.613.8021 fax
Why is MarijuanaDecriminalizationNot Enough?
Decriminalization of marijuana possession is anecessary first step toward a more comprehensivereform of the drug prohibition regime. However decriminalization alone does not address many of the greatest harms of prohibition – such as highlevels of crime, corruption and violence, massiveillicit markets and the harmful healthconsequences of drugs produced in the absenceof regulatory oversight. 17 states havedecriminalized marijuana possession, while two othese – Colorado and Washington – have begun tolegally regulate marijuana for adults over 21.The Costs and Consequences of Prohibition
Marijuana prohibition has been a costly failure. In2011, there were 757,969 marijuana arrests in the U.S.– comprising half of all drug arrests. Eighty-sevenpercent of these arrests were for simple possession,not sale or manufacture. There are more annualarrests for marijuana possession than for all violentcrimes combined.
1
 Yet today, marijuana is the most widely used illegaldrug in the U.S. and the world. More than 100 millionAmericans – about 42 percent of American adults –admit to having tried it, and over 18 million have usedit in the past month.
2
 Marijuana arrests also disproportionately affect youngpeople of color. According to government data, whitesreportedly consume and sell marijuana at the samerates as (or higher than) blacks and Latinos.
3
Yet,blacks and Latinos are arrested for marijuanapossession or for selling marijuana at vastlydisproportionate rates.
4
In fact, a new report by theAmerican Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) found thatblacks were nearly four times more likely to bearrested for possession than whites in 2010.
5
 
Decriminalization
Seventeen states including California,Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska, New York,Ohio, Connecticut, Rhode Island and, most recently,Vermont – have enacted various forms of marijuanadecriminalization or legalization.Decriminalization is commonly defined as thereduction or elimination of criminal penalties for minormarijuana possession offenses. Many of these stateshave replaced criminal sanctions with the imposition of civil, fine-only penalties
6
; others have reducedmarijuana possession from a felony to a fine-onlymisdemeanor or infraction.
7
 
Source: Federal Bureau of Investigation, Uniform CrimeReport, Crime in the United States, 2011.
Why is Decriminalization Not Enough?
Decriminalization is certainly a step in the rightdirection, mitigating the excesses of marijuanaprohibition to a degree. Evidence from the states thathave reduced penalties not only shows no increase inmarijuana or other drug use,
8
but also substantialreductions in misdemeanor arrests where
43%
6%12%39%
U.S. Drug Arrests, 2011
MarijuanaPossessionMarijuanaSales orManufacturingAll Other DrugSales orManufacturingAll Other DrugPossession
 
Drug Policy Alliance | 131 West 33rd Street, 15th Floor, New York, NY 10001nyc@drugpolicy.org | 212.613.8020 voice | 212.613.8021 fax
decriminalization has been implemented effectively. In2011, California law changed, and simple marijuanapossession was reclassified as an infraction(administrative violation) instead of a misdemeanor,leading to a significant decline in misdemeanormarijuana arrests.”
9
Specifically, misdemeanormarijuana arrests plunged from 54,849 in 2010
10
to7,764 in 2011,
11
and remained constant in 2012 at7,768
12
-- a decrease of more than 80 percent.Because of this dramatic reduction, overall drugarrests declined from 129,182 in 2010 to 76,916 in2011,
13
and 79,270 in 2012.
14
 
However, decriminalization falls short in many ways –largely because it still lies within the framework of 
prohibition.
Consequently, decriminalization still suffersfrom the inherent harms of prohibition – namely, anillegal, unregulated market; the unequal application of the laws (regardless of severity of penalty) towardcertain groups, especially people of color; unregulatedproducts of unknown potency and quality; and thepotential for continued arrests as part of a “net-widening” phenomenon.
15
 Under decriminalization, it is likely that marijuanapossession arrests will continue, or even increase,because police may be more inclined to make arrestsif they present less administrative burdens asinfractions, civil offenses, or even misdemeanors(without jail), as opposed to felonies. Thisphenomenon occurred in California after the statereduced the penalty for marijuana possession from afelony to a misdemeanor: felony arrests declineddramatically, and overall arrests declined as well, butmisdemeanor arrests rose sharply.
16
A similar processof “net-widening” occurred in parts of Australia thatdecriminalized marijuana, where “police officers, nowrelieved of the burden of taking the offender throughformal booking procedures, made many more formalarrests…Since many arrestees did not pay their fines,the result was an increase in the number of individualsbeing incarcerated for marijuana offenses, albeit nowindirectly for their failure to pay a fine.”
17
 Even a misdemeanor conviction can hinder anindividual’s ability to succeed and participate in societyby preventing him or her from obtaining employment,housing and student loans.
18
Even an arrest recordcan be an obstacle to opportunities for otherwise law-abiding individuals.Additionally, not
all
decriminalization schemes protect
all
people from risk of arrest. Even in many of thestates that have reduced penalties, marijuanapossession is not fully ‘decriminalized”. Some stateshave defined simple marijuana possession as onlyone-half ounce or even less;
19
possession of morethan these amounts may still trigger harsh criminalpenalties. Some states have only decriminalized a firstoffense, while subsequent offenses are punishedseverely.
20
Other states’ decriminalization laws haveloopholes, such as New York’s, in which personalpossession is decriminalized but possession in “publicview” remains a crime; as a result, even thoughmarijuana is formally decriminalized, the NYPD stillarrested roughly 40,000 people in 2012 – the vastmajority of whom were blacks and Latinos.
21
 Overall, decriminalization provides only limitedprotections from the criminal justice system, because“the police may increase the number of arrests,because the burden of arrest for them has beenreduced…Or the limits for possession have been setso low that many instances of possession for personaluse may be wrongly classified [as trafficking orpossession for distribution].”
22
 Decriminalization will also do nothing to eliminate thelucrative underground market for marijuana. The valueof marijuana produced in the U.S. is estimated to bemore than $35 billion, making it the nation’s largestcash crop, exceeding the value of corn and wheatcombined.
23
This immense market is completelyuntaxed, a source of revenue that federal and stategovernments can ill-afford to neglect.Instead, prohibition ensures that this vast marketenriches criminal organizations and contributes toviolence, crime and corruption on a massive scale.Virtually all marijuana-related violence is a direct resultof prohibition, which keeps responsible, regulatedbusinesses out of the market. Since illegal businesseshave no legitimate means to settle disputes, violenceinevitably results – just as it did during alcoholProhibition. The effect has been unending bloodshed in countrieslike Mexico, where at least 70,000 people have beenkilled in prohibition-related violence in the past sixyears.
24
The U.N recently described Central Americaas one of the most violent regions in the world outsideof active war zones.
25
 
 
Drug Policy Alliance | 131 West 33rd Street, 15th Floor, New York, NY 10001nyc@drugpolicy.org | 212.613.8020 voice | 212.613.8021 fax
Marijuana prohibition is a major cause of this carnage. The federal government has asserted that [M]arijuanadistribution in the United States remains the singlelargest source of revenue for the Mexican cartels,”
26
 and has called the substance “a cash crop thatfinances corruption and the carnage of violence yearafter year.”
27
The former U.S. drug czar, John Walters,went so far as to publicly contend that more than 60percent of cartels’ revenue derives from the marijuanatrade – amounting to some $13.8 billion.
28
 
Taxation and Regulation
Legal regulation is not a step into the unknown – wehave centuries of experience in legally regulatingthousands of different drugs. Legal regulation meanscommonsense controls – marijuana wouldn’t betreated like Coca-Cola, available to anyone of any age,anywhere, at any time. Under many regulatoryproposals, it would be taxed and regulated in a mannersimilar to alcoholic beverages, with age limits, licensingcontrols, and other regulatory restrictions. Just ascities, counties and states vary in the way theyregulate alcohol, the same could be true for marijuana.
Marijuana prohibition is unique among Americancriminal laws – no other law is both enforced sowidely and harshly yet deemed unnecessary bysuch a substantial portion of the population.
Do you think the use of marijuana should be madelegal or not?
%
 
No, illegal
 
 %
Yes,
legal
Source: Pew, “Majority Now Supports Legalizing Marijuana,” April 4, 2013.
In November of 2012, residents of Colorado andWashington took the historic step of rejecting thedecades-long failed policy of marijuana prohibition bydeciding to permit the legal regulation of marijuanasales, cultivation and distribution for adults 21 andolder. In Colorado, Amendment 64 won with 54.8percent of the vote. In Washington State, I-502 wonwith 55.7 percent of the vote. Both states havecompletely eliminated all penalties for marijuanapossession by adults; Colorado’s law also allowsadults to cultivate six marijuana plants. These statesdetermined that simply eliminating criminal penaltiesfor possession was not enough. They are in theprocess of establishing regulations for the cultivation,distribution and sale of marijuana to adults – a processthat will be completed towards the end of the year.Legislators in several states have also introduced (orpledged to introduce) bills to tax and regulatemarijuana. In Congress, a bipartisan group of legislators has introduced historic legislation to endfederal marijuana prohibition. 16 Representatives havenow co-sponsored the bill – including CaliforniaRepublican Dana Rohrabacher.
29
 Public support for making marijuana legal has shifteddramatically in the last two decades, especially in thelast few years, with recent polls showing greater thanmajority support nationwide, including an April poll byPew showing that 52 percent of respondents favorlegalizing marijuana.
30
A 2012 poll, meanwhile, foundthat 74 percent of Americans believe personalmarijuana use should be dealt with throughalternatives to criminal penalties,
31
and a recent pollfound that 94 percent of Americans oppose jailsanctions for marijuana offenses – and more than two-thirds believe someone caught with marijuana shouldeither be fined or not punished at all.
32
 Strong majorities of the American people stronglyoppose any federal intervention in the democraticprocesses of these states, according to new polls byGallup (64 percent) and CBS News (59 percent). Infact, a significant number – nearly half – of those whooppose marijuana legalization on principlenevertheless believe that Colorado and Washingtonshould be allowed to move forward with regulatingadult use of marijuana.
33
Nearly three-quarters (74percent) of respondents to another poll late last yearsaid they oppose the federal government’s crackdownon state medical marijuana programs, believinginstead that the federal government should respect
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