November 17, 2005
By Mike Krause
Last year saw a new record for marijuana arrests in the United States. It’s worth asking if the Colorado Legislature should take a look at Colorado’s part in what amounts to a stunning misappropriation of criminal justice resources.
According to FBI data released in October of this year, there were 771,605 marijuana arrests nationwide in 2004, actually outstripping arrests for all violent crimes combined.
Colorado is part of this national trend. According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Uniform Crime Reports program, in a county-by-county breakdown of arrests there were over 11,400 marijuana arrests in Colorado in 2001 (one of the last years for which such detailed data are available), 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 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.”
It also imposes a great cost on Colorado taxpayers. In 2005, Harvard University Economist Jeffrey Miron released a breakdown of the cost of marijuana prohibition. The report, endorsed by Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman and over one hundred other economists, found that in the year 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. (The report is available at http://www.prohibitioncosts.org./mironreport.html)
Certain assumptions were used to arrive at this figure. For instance, Miron found a national average of “stand alone” marijuana arrests between 33 and 85 percent of all marijuana related arrests. According to Miron, “To err on the conservative side, the report assumes that 50% of possession arrests are due solely to marijuana possession rather than being incidental to some other crime.”
Miron also assumes a 1 percent prison population as a result of marijuana convictions. In 2000, the percentage of marijuana offenders in Colorado prisons was less than one percent.
While open to some interpretation, Miron’s work is the best available example of what Coloradoans are compelled to spend annually on combating a controlled substance that, according to a U.S. Department of Justice drug threat assessment, Colorado law enforcement regards as “a lower threat than methamphetamine or cocaine because marijuana abusers and distributors usually do not commit violent crimes.”
Keep in mind that Colorado prisons are over filled (109 percent of design capacity in 2003), and the state can no longer afford new prison beds out of the general fund, while local jails operate beyond capacity throughout the state.
Police agencies from the Routt County Sheriff’s Office to the Denver Police Department, claim to be under-staffed and overworked, while the court system is overburdened and backlogged; in 2004, there were over 10,700 adult criminal case filings in Colorado courts just for drug cases, still only one quarter of criminal case filings.
The recently passed tax increase, Referendum C, contains no money for corrections, or other criminal justice spending.
And even if one were to err drastically on the side of conservatism and halve Miron’s findings, this is still more money than Colorado’s eighteen Multijurisdictional Narcotics Task Forces spend annually on organized enforcement against all illicit drugs in Colorado.
Yet despite the annual millions spent, and thousands arrested, marijuana remains the most widely used and readily available illicit drug in Colorado.
Rich Lowry, Editor of the conservative National Review Online, writes, “The fight against marijuana isn’t even working on its own terms.” Lowry notes that since 1992, the price of marijuana has fallen steadily, actually declining by 16 percent.
Surely some, if not most of the resources currently used to enforce marijuana laws can be put to better use. The legislature should consider action to make the number of Coloradoans arrested, along with the tax dollars spent, match more closely the “lower threat” status of marijuana in the state’s criminal justice priorities.