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Pot enforcement a waste of resources

Opinion Editorial
May 7, 2006

Author: Mike Krause

Our national addiction to marijuana prohibition leads to astonishing numbers of marijuana arrests. So it’s worth asking why Colorado continues to participate in this misappropriation of valuable criminal justice resources.

According to FBI data there were a record 771,605 marijuana arrests nationwide in 2004, actually outstripping arrests for all violent crimes combined.

Colorado is part of this irrational trend. For example, in 2001 there were over 11,400 marijuana arrests statewide (this includes citations), more than 58 percent of all drug arrests. Of these, over 10,900 were for marijuana possession.

The recent book An Analytical Assessment of U.S. Drug Policy, published by the conservative American Enterprise Institute, puts marijuana enforcement into some perspective, “Plainly marijuana enforcement has a limited deterrent effect. Yet precisely because the drug is so widely and casually used, marijuana enforcement is particularly intrusive, nabbing many more non-problem users than cocaine or heroin enforcement. Much marijuana enforcement is simply unjustifiable — it does little to prevent problem use, but imposes great cost on non-problem users.”

In other words, otherwise law-abiding citizens are often turned into outlaws simply for preferring marijuana to martinis.

It also imposes a great cost on Colorado taxpayers. A 2005 study on the cost of marijuana prohibition by Harvard University Economist Jeffrey Miron found that in 2000, Colorado’s combined police agencies, judicial (courts and prosecutors) and corrections budget was nearly $2 billion. Of this, $64 million was spent on enforcement of marijuana prohibition.

Certain assumptions to arrive at this figure. For instance, the national average for “stand alone” marijuana arrests is between 33 and 85 percent of all marijuana related arrests. So, according to Miron, “To err on the conservative side, the report assumes that 50 percent of possession arrests are due solely to marijuana possession rather than being incidental to some other crime.”

While open to some interpretation, Miron’s work is the best available example of what Coloradoans are compelled to spend annually on marijuana enforcement.

Yet despite the annual millions spent, and thousands arrested, marijuana remains the most widely used and readily available illicit drug in Colorado.

Keep in mind that local jails operate beyond capacity throughout the state, while police agencies from the Routt County Sheriff’s Office to the Denver Police Department, claim to be under-staffed and overworked.

Surely some, if not most of the criminal justice resources currently being wasted on marijuana enforcement can be put to better use.

Originally Published in the Denver Daily News.