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October 8, 2010

"Would Legalizing Marijuana Cut Law Enforcement Costs?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this effective California piece taking a hard look at one aspect of the debate over the state's marijuana initiative on the ballot next month.  Here are excerpts:

Supporters of Proposition 19 say legalizing and regulating marijuana would save debt-plagued California hundreds of millions of dollars in public safety costs. But, could it?...

If you ask local law enforcement officials, they say they are focusing on real criminals. It just so happens that some of those real criminals happen to have marijuana on them, they said.

San Diego Sheriff Bill Gore says there isn’t a focus in his department on finding and arresting small-time marijuana users. “There could have been 20 or 30 years ago," Gore said. "But those days are long gong. You’re not going to see people arrested for smoking a joint walking down the street. They will be cited in most cases. What our department focuses on, as does almost every other law enforcement agency, I’m sure, in the county, focuses on organizations that are selling drugs and distributing drugs.”...

Yeson19.com tells visitors that the state stands to save hundreds of millions of law enforcement dollars if the proposition is approved.  The site points to California’s 61,000 marijuana arrests and 60,000 unsolved violent crimes in 2008 as proof of misplaced priorities.

But, prison stats seem to back the sheriff.  In the state’s prisons people incarcerated for marijuana charges alone –- and that’s all marijuana charges: possession, transport and sale –- make up less than 1 percent of the population.  They also make up a small portion of the county jails populations in the state's three largest counties....

According to a paper published by the RAND Corporation earlier this year, some pro-legalization groups overestimate potential law enforcement cost savings from the legalization of marijuana.  The paper's author, Jonathan P. Caulkins,found one reason for that overestimation was that researchers assumed equal costs for every arrest.

“Most of the marijuana possession arrests come about because of other activities," said Caulkins, a professor of public policy at Carnegie Mellon University.  "It could be something like a traffic stop, but it’s not that there are lots of police working eight hours a day trying to hunt down marijuana users the way that there really are narcotics detectives who do work all day long trying to arrest cocaine and heroine dealers.”

Right now people caught with small amounts of pot don't get taken to jail if they can produce a valid ID and have no outstanding warrants.  They get ticketed and have to appear in court. These marijuana misdemeanor cases accounted for just 1,700 of the more than 25,000 cases the San Diego City Attorney's office has processed this year, according to Andrew Jones, assistant city attorney in the criminal division.

That process will change in January even if Prop. 19 doesn’t pass.  Possessing less than an ounce of marijuana will become an infraction under a new law the governor signed last week. People caught with less than an ounce of pot will be fined $100.  If they want to contest the fine they’ll do it in a civil court, just like a traffic ticket.

October 8, 2010 at 02:54 PM | Permalink


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It's county jails, municipal courts and policing costs, not state prisons, where this would make a difference. For county taxpayers, though, it would probably be a significant sum. Even for citations, officer time, court costs, etc., all adds up when you're talking about local budgets.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Oct 8, 2010 9:02:08 PM

Traffic Court is still criminal, its just an infraction. They will still take up court resources, FYI. Also, legalization will take out the criminal element out of the cultivation and sales and that will free up a substantial amount of law enforcement resources.

Posted by: Ronald Richards | Oct 8, 2010 9:36:24 PM

So the argument is that because police can tell who "real criminals" are, we should give them a faux-crime they can charge "real criminals" with?

Imagine how much easier their life would be if it was crime to drink water and breath air.

Posted by: Anon23 | Oct 8, 2010 10:40:28 PM

in California they also prefer spend 150 millions dollar per year in death penalty and have 1.000 unsolved homicides per year.

Posted by: claudio giusti, italia | Oct 10, 2010 7:48:41 AM

Nice review of the economics and failure of the War on Drugs. Needs no comment, since we know who writes the laws. This is from a list of ways to cut government to enhance the economy and freedom.


"Declare Defeat in the Drug War
...the war on drugs by its very nature tramples on “the right to sovereignty over one’s own mind and body.” It also squanders taxpayer money while causing far more harm than it prevents.

To enforce drug prohibition, state and federal agencies spend more than $40 billion and make 1.7 million arrests every year. This effort wastes resources that could be used to fight predatory crime. But the direct taxpayer costs are only part of the story. While imprisoned (as half a million of them currently are), drug offenders cannot earn money or care for their families, which boosts child welfare costs. After they are released, they earn less than they otherwise could have—roughly $100,000 less over the course of their working lives, according to Harvard sociologist Bruce Western. These losses add billions more to the annual drug war tab.

The Office of National Drug Control Policy estimated that Americans spent $65 billion on illegal drugs in 2000, the equivalent of more than $80 billion today. Comparisons between legal and illegal drugs suggest that as much as 90 percent of that spending is attributable to prohibition’s impact on drug prices, meaning that legalization would make tens of billions of dollars available for other purposes each year. Some of those savings probably would be sucked up by drug taxes, which Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron estimates could generate nearly $50 billion a year in government revenue.

Lower prices also would dramatically reduce the incentive for heavy users to finance their habits through theft. In a 1991 survey, 10 percent of federal prisoners and 17 percent of state prisoners reported committing such crimes. Since stolen goods are sold at a steep discount, the value of the property taken to pay for drugs is several times higher than the artificially inflated cost of drugs."

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Oct 10, 2010 11:59:37 AM

Well, there are actually couple different angles to look at this argument. Even the 1% of those incarcerated for drug use and trafficking of any kind still costs the state quite a bit of money. Also, those cases that are disputed in civil court will cost money and makes for drained resources as well.

Posted by: legal | Oct 10, 2010 12:12:50 PM

Proposition 19, Legalization, Taxation, and Regulation of Marijuana in the State of California-A Yes Vote

It is important to have someone read the entire text of an amendment to the California Constitution prior making a vote. It is not expected that everyone do so but as an attorney, I always like to. After reading Proposition 19, the ballot initiative on legalization, taxation, and regulation of marijuana, it is clear that the benefits to voting “Yes” clearly outweigh the benefits to voting no.
What does it do? Under current law, possession of an ounce of marijuana is a $100.00 fine, an infraction. It is less than a speeding or red light camera ticket. Under current law, it is what we call “decriminalized.” This proposition simply makes the same amount legal and subject to regulation, taxation and control.
What does it NOT do? It does NOT legalize black market or illegal sales of marijuana. It has a two prong approach to eliminating non taxable sales of marijuana. First, it allows individuals to grow it in the open instead of underground. This eliminates people stealing electricity, having it grown in empty houses which carry a fire risk, and best of all, increases the supply which should bring down the price. Second, it allows local governments or communities that want to allow their local town to generate tax dollars to sell marijuana to individuals over 21. It does NOT create a state wide right but merely allows local communities to enact ordinances which allow for the sale and taxation of the product. Sales and income tax would go to the federal and state governments while any local tax analogous to a room tax would go to the municipality that allows the retail sales.
I read the persons opposed to the initiative and it is obvious they all have political reasons for doing so:
1. Both candidates running for attorney general: Of course they are against it. They are both running for California’s top law enforcement officer. There is no upside for them to be in favor of it but their opposition is meaningless in that it is unreliable and based on the same false fear cited below that someone driving while stone prosecutions could be effected. It is not a coincidence that there are many retired police officers and judges that are in favor of it. They can now speak freely.
2. MADD (Mothers against Drunk Driving)-They oppose every piece of legislation that makes any drug easy to obtain or lowers a penalty. The amount of marijuana related accidents pales in comparison to the amount of drunk driving accidents. The initiative does NOT affect any laws relating to driving under the influence of marijuana.
3. The argument against Proposition 19 signed by Sen. Diane Feinstein and the President of MADD is flawed and inaccurate just like the AG candidates argument. With the greatest respect to the Senator and the District Attorneys who parrot her argument, the Senator is simply being misinformed about DUI prosecutions relating to marijuana. First, they are rare and nothing in the initiative affects them. Second, the fear being generated by the opposition rises and falls on the issue of the presence of marijuana in someone’s blood or urine. First, if someone is pulled over and they are not under the influence of marijuana or some other drug, there will be no test. There has to be symptoms plus bad driving first. If after a drug recognition expert (DRE) performs an exam they appear “stoned” and their driving was poor, only then, would their blood or urine test be relevant to corroborate the findings of the DRE. Simply having marijuana in your blood (the half life is 30 days) has very little evidentiary value. What the opposition fails to mention is that being “stoned” IS 100 PERCENT LEGAL under today’s law. There is no prohibition under California law to be high. Therefore, the issue of it being in one’s blood is a fact without any legal significance. Nothing in the initiative effects DUI prosecutions. It is completely legal to get stoned on Monday night and drive Tuesday morning. This is the exact scenario both the opposition and the rebuttal to Proposition 19 claim would be a possibility under the initiative. What they fail to mention is that this is the legal reality under today’s law and our laws for the last 40 years!!
It is ridiculous for the opposition to claim the initiative does not create a standard for what is driving under the influence of marijuana when the initiative specifically excludes any changes to drunk driving laws and excludes from the definition of personal consumption (the protected use by a person over 21) during the operation of a motor vehicle or consumption that impairs the operator. These limitations cover the situation where someone gets “stoned” prior to driving or while driving. It actually protects existing law, not weakens it.
This initiative should not nor would define any new legal tests for being under the influence when its sole purpose by the drafters was to avoid disrupting existing laws on the subject. It is unfortunate that these ballot arguments are not checked by attorneys who work in this area because the public gets intentionally mislead.
Upon reviewing the entire statute, I believe a “Yes” vote is appropriate. It is time for California to get a piece of the $15 billion a year in illegal marijuana transactions and for our courts and law enforcement to be relieved of the 61,000 marijuana related arrests conducted each year. OUR money is better spent elsewhere. This is way conservatives, liberals, moderates, and independents are all in support of this initiative.

Posted by: Ronald Richards | Oct 10, 2010 11:39:16 PM

Dutch are rethinking.


Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Oct 11, 2010 8:51:54 AM

Most of the people that are caught and arrested are in jail for possession. Not intent to sell or anything like that. Just letting the people out for possession would cut tax payer costs tremendously.

Posted by: Operation 420 | Apr 11, 2011 10:06:50 PM

What does it do? Under current law, possession of an ounce of marijuana is a $100.00 fine, an infraction. It is less than a speeding or red light camera ticket. Under current law, it is what we call “decriminalized.” This proposition simply makes the same amount legal and subject to regulation, taxation and control.

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