History of Marijuana Prohibition

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To:          John P. Walters, Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control
From:        Susan Fisk
Re:          Marijuana Prohibition in the United States
Date:        April 25, 2005

Introduction to Marijuana Prohibition
       Marijuana has not always been a controlled substance in the United States, but has
become increasingly criminalized over the years with increased punishments for its possession,
distribution, and growth. These measures have been justified under the assumption they protect
America from drugs and keep us safe. However, time has shown us that the prohibition and
criminalization of marijuana has created many problems, including huge amounts of government
spending, decreased resources for other government projects, and thousands of lives ruined or
destroyed. The problems created by our strictly enforced prohibition policies are even greater
than the problems marijuana itself is reported to cause. To minimize the harms caused by these
policies, the Office of National Drug Control should work to ensure both the repeal of mandatory
minimum laws and de facto decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana possession while
channeling the savings resulting from these actions into drug rehabilitation and education.

The Failures of Marijuana Prohibition
       Marijuana prohibition has caused many more problems then it has solved. The
criminalization of marijuana has resulted in massive government expenditures to enforce drug
laws, decreased resources for education and the prosecution of victim crimes, increased crime
due to the inflated price of marijuana, and thousands of lives ruined or destroyed.
       In 2005, the federal government spent $12.2 billion on the Office of National Drug
Control Policy alone (ONDCP, 1) while federal, state, and local governments combined
spending exceeded $30 billion (National Research Counsel, 1). Much of this money is spent to
incarcerate marijuana users due to the existing laws and the existence of mandatory minimums.
Since the war on drugs began, ten million Americans have been arrested for marijuana offenses,
around 250,000 have been convicted of marijuana felonies and been sent to prison for at least a
year. In 2001 alone, 724,000 individuals were arrested for violating marijuana laws and 90% of
these arrests were for simple possession of marijuana. This is a costly endeavor as it costs
between $20,000 and $30,000 to keep a prisoner behind bars for one year. (Schlosser,
       Due to the massive amounts of money and resources spent to enforce marijuana laws,
there is consequently less money left for education and fewer resources to prosecute victim
related crimes. Given that both education and prison systems have to fight for the allocation of
the same state dollars, education most often loses out. Since 1984, California has built thirteen
new state prisons and but only one new state university (Gray, 34). Worse still, the prosecution
of marijuana users has clogged up the criminal system and left fewer resources to prosecute other
crimes. This makes intuitive sense as nearly as many people are arrested for marijuana related
offenses as for murders, rapes, robberies, and aggravated assaults combined (FBI). Due to the
enactment of mandatory minimum laws, judges are often left no choice in the sentencing of
marijuana users, which leads to crowding of federal prisons and overly severe punishments.
Indeed, statistics have shown that marijuana possession is four times more likely to lead to a
third-strike conviction than murder, rape, and kidnapping combined (Gray 32). Some even argue
that violent criminals are occasionally released early from prison to make room for the inflow of
drug offenders (Schlosser, 57).
         Furthermore, the criminalization of marijuana has resulted in increased crime due to the
nature of prohibition. When a good is placed outside the realm of the law, the price and profits
of selling the illicit good dramatically increase since sellers must be compensated for bearing the
increased risk. This gives people an incentive to engage in illegal behavior because the profits of
selling drugs are enormous in comparison to other job opportunities. However, since all of this
business is conducted outside of the law, there is no legal system to enforce contracts and settle
disputes, causing sellers and buyers to resort to violence. Additionally, since criminalization
increases the price of drugs, addicted buyers may often resort to criminal behavior in order to
finance their behavior (Long, 171). Our Nation’s history has shown that increased crime is a
result of prohibition of any controlled substance. By examining the murder rates over the past
ninety years, Noble prize winner Milton Friedman had found that the homicide rate began to rise
more steeply during prohibition, but then declined sharply after 1933 when alcohol was again
legalized. Even in the case in our more recent treatment of drugs, Friedman has found the same
trend to hold true; the homicide rate began to soar after President Nixon launched the war on
         Lastly, the criminalization of marijuana damages and destroys many lives. Many people
are imprisoned simply for the possession of marijuana, which disrupts their lives and impedes
their search for employment. Going to prison in and of itself is often also a damaging task; at
times drug users are placed with more violent rapists and murders and subject to their abuse. But
there are worse things than arrest and prison; there is death. According to Milton Friedman, at
least 5,000 extra homicides a year are caused by the war on drugs in the United States alone.
Without doubt, we are paying very high costs in terms of our resources, our money, our time,
and our lives to wage the war on marijuana.

In Defense of Marijuana Prohibition
       Nonetheless, some argue that these costs are worth the war on drugs as the benefits of
marijuana prohibition outweigh them. They argue that law enforcement measures have
deterrence effects, the decriminalization of marijuana would send “the wrong message to kids,”
and that marijuana has a number of harmful side effects.
       Most individuals who support the prohibition of marijuana claim that it causes fewer
people to use the drug and that pursuing stringent criminal punishments serves as a deterrent.
Yet this argument ignore the fact that the percentage of high school seniors who report having
“easy access” to marijuana was 88.5% in both 1982 and 2000 despite massive increases in the
enforcement of drug laws (Schlosser, 71) while the usage of marijuana has climbed since 1991
(Hanson 366). These statistics also ignore the fact that Holland has a lower per capita marijuana
usage in ratio in both teenagers and adults then does United States despite the fact possession of
small amounts of marijuana is legal in the country (Gray, 220).
       Others, especially parent groups, worry that decriminalizing marijuana sends the “wrong
message” to children. However, this does not have to be the case; we can mobilize drug dollars
that were once spent to prosecute drug users to mount a drug awareness campaign about the
harmful effects of marijuana. Regarding the case of tobacco, this approach has worked as
teenage smoking has decreased over time due to increased awareness of the ill effects of the
drug. Additional, we can also enact driving while high laws that would punish those who drove
and smoked marijuana at the same time. With such actions, no such “wrong messages” would be
sent to children.
       Lastly, some believe that marijuana should be criminalized due to its adverse health
effects. Studies show that marijuana usage decreases eye-hand coordination and reaction time,
thereby decreasing driving ability. Research also shows that while heavy marijuana usage has a
negative impact on critical thinking skills in the short run, it remains unresolved whether these
effects occur in the long run as well. Indeed, the only credible long term-effect of marijuana
usage is that it affects the respiratory system in the same way as tobacco. While some studies
have shown that marijuana is mildly physically addictive, true psychological dependence has
been shown to occur only in heavy users of the drug. Despite the adverse side effects, marijuana
is no more harmful than tobacco, which we already sell legally in America. (Hanson, 374-382)

Possible Solutions
       There are a number of possible solutions that could be implemented in response to the
problems caused by the prohibition of drugs. These include increased spending on rehabilitation,
the removal of mandatory minimums, de facto and de jure decriminalization, as well as the
legalization and controlled distribution of marijuana.
       In response to marijuana possession, the war against drugs could focus on rehabilitating
users instead of placing them in jail to conserve resources. Studies have shown that drug
treatment is seven times more cost-effective than domestic law enforcement in addressing drug
abuse (Gray, 181). As our country currently only spends 20% of our multi-billion dollar federal
budget on such treatment programs, savings could be reaped through the expansion of such cost-
effective programs and fewer lives would be damaged through being sent to prison (Associated
Press). Such a move would most likely also be politically feasible as 69% of adults in the United
States say they would favor laws that require treatment instead of incarceration for first and
second non-violent drug offenses (Husak, 115). However, politicians might fear advocating such
a change for fear of being characterized as “weak on drugs.”
       Repealing mandatory minimums for possession would also decrease the time and
resources spent on simple marijuana cases as fewer individuals would be sent to jail. Such a
move would grant judges more leeway and allow more appropriate sanctions to be issued.
However, it is unlikely politicians would rally behind such a move due to the possible political
repercussions discusses previously.
       The de facto decriminalization would involve the cessation of government efforts to
enforce the laws prohibiting possession. Users would no longer be arrested or prosecuted for
possessing or growing small amounts of marijuana for personal use. Under de jure
decimalization, criminal laws prohibiting such behavior would be repealed and perhaps replaced
with criminal tickets or fines, similar to those issued for speeding. If either type of
decriminalization occurred, the time of our government would be freed to prosecute more serious
law offenders while the monetary savings could be channeled to education. The
decriminalization would also cause the crime associated with marijuana to decrease since the
risks of selling it would fall (Friedman). Along with the decrease of risk, there would also be a
decrease in its price to buyers, further any crime associated with the drug. Lastly, the
government would stop ruining the lives of peaceful marijuana users by sending them to prison.
The benefit of de facto regulation is that it is far less politically controversial than the repeal of
old marijuana laws, which parental groups would most likely strongly lobby against. Indeed,
this was the recommendation made by Nixon’s bipartisan Commission on Marijuana and Drug
Abuse in 1972 (Gerber, 36).
        If marijuana was legalized and the distribution of it was controlled by the government, it
would be treated in largely the same manner as alcohol. Marijuana would not be sold to
underage individuals and the advertising of it would most likely be illegal. However, through
managing its distribution, the government would be able to monitor and control the quality of the
drug and also exercise large “sin taxes.” The revenues obtained from the taxes could be used to
fund government projects, or even increase efforts to combat drug use through public awareness
and education. The benefits of this method encompass all of the benefits associated with
decriminalization, but also include the added benefits of the elimination of all criminal activity
associated with marijuana as well as the collection of revenue for the government. However,
such a step would be politically risky for any politician to undertake and unlikely to have success
since most people believe such a measure would greatly increase usage of marijuana.

        To combat the problems of marijuana prohibition, mandatory minimum laws should be
repealed and de facto decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana possession should occur
while some of the savings resulting from these actions should be channeled into drug
rehabilitation and education. These policies would decrease the excessive spending on drug
enforcement, the crime rate, and the ruin caused to individual lives. Although grassroots
parental groups against drugs would likely oppose such measures, they would likely support
increased spending on rehabilitation and education. These policies also have broad appeal as
they fit within most citizens’ moral norms of drug usage and would help decrease the federal
deficient. Thus, these measures would be able to effectively combat the problems of marijuana
prohibition while also remaining politically feasible.