The Cost of Prohibition: How Marijuana Charges have Burdened Americans

Free stock image of the inside of a prison

The national political discourse is rapidly evolving on issues once thought to be fringe. Ideas like Medicare-for-All, tuition-free college and heavily taxing the rich were considered taboo not too long ago, yet today they all enjoy majority support, according to most polling numbers.

Another policy that has surged in popularity is the idea of repealing the prohibition of marijuana, and legalizing it for recreational use. According to recent polling from Gallup, 64% of Americans support legalizing cannabis on a federal level. This polling also reflects a sprouting bipartisan consensus, with a majority of Democrats, Independents and Republicans favoring the idea.

Marijuana legalization is also quickly becoming a common-sense position for many candidates running for office. As of this writing, every candidate in the 2020 Democratic primary field supports the legalization of cannabis. While the groundswell of support for ending prohibition is encouraging for the future of American drug policy, legalization is only a fraction of the sweeping systemic change required to alter criminal justice reform in this country.

Much has been made of the tax revenue that would ensue the creation of a new cannabis market, and rightfully so; however, less discussed are the economic burdens that would dissipate as a result of structural reform of the criminal justice system.

Statistics from 2017 reveal that 659,700 people were arrested on marijuana-related charges, more than 90 percent of whom were apprehended for simple possession. According to a 2013 estimate from the American Civil Liberties Union, an average arrest for marijuana costs taxpayers $750. This means that each year, taxpayers foot a bill of nearly half a billion dollars for simple possession arrests.

These inflated numbers swell even more when the scope is expanded to analyze all drug arrests and incarceration. Overall, 1,632,921 people were arrested in 2017 for drug charges, more than 85 percent of whom were seized simply for possession.

In addition to the costs of arrest, there is also the obvious disparity of implementation against minority communities, particularly among African-Americans and Latinos. Even in states that have legalized marijuana for recreational use, arrests are still commonplace in these groups.

Using Washington, D.C. as an example, data has shown a significant drop in the number of overall arrests, but apprehensions persist for petty violations of its laws. Following the imposition of Initiative 71 in the district, arrest rates for marijuana plummeted across all racial groups, however a vast disparity remains. According to data from 2016, African-Americans are still four times more likely to face apprehension for petty violations such as public consumption, possession and distribution.

This theme of racial disparity also extends to the processes of prosecution and incarceration. While exact data on marijuana sentencing is difficult to gauge, what is available is an indictment of a slanted criminal justice system.

Graphic courtesy of: Drug Policy Alliance, U.S. Census Bureau, Bureau of Justice Statistics

According to data from the Drug Policy Alliance, White people comprise a solid majority of the U.S. population, they make up a disproportionate percentage of the American prison system. The above chart shows a clear imbalance in terms of ethnic composition of the penal system’s drug offenders.

The costs that entail the War on Drugs are, as one would imagine, astronomical. D.P.A. estimates that taxpayers shell out more than 47 billion dollars between arrests, incarceration, legal fees and funding criminal justice apparatuses.

Despite the crippling costs of the War on Drugs, the most damaging factor is lifetime punishment that offenders face. After serving their time and spending exorbitant amounts of money on legal fees, drug offenders are left with a hypothetical scarlet letter on their permanent record. Their career prospects are dashed because employers may be hesitant to hire them, they will face pernicious trials for things as simple as a bank loan, and their options for renting will be severely limited.

Marijuana legalization will certainly be a cornerstone of any successful Democratic primary competitor in 2020, and it will certainly make for riveting debate. Yet these aspirations should expand the horizon to include a broader discussion on existing drug policies and criminal justice reform, en masse. Fortunately for drug offenders, support for these policies is snowballing, and with bipartisan zeal.