NORML Report on Sixty Years of Marijuana Prohibition in the U.S.
V. Marijuana Prohibition Costs Taxpayers at Least $7.5 Billion Annually
While there is a lack of information on the precise costs of marijuana prohibition in the available literature, it is possible to estimate the tremendous annual fiscal costs of marijuana prohibition.
Annual federal government expenditures on the "war on drugs" average $15.7 billion annually. 39 In addition, state and local governments also spend $16 billion per year enforcing drug laws. 40 In 1995, nearly 600,000 of the total 1.5 million drug arrests in America were for marijuana offenses. 41 Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that between 25 and 40 percent of the total $31 billion annual costs are related to marijuana prohibition. Using this basic calculation, marijuana prohibition costs the American taxpayers between $7.5 and $10 billion annually in enforcement alone.
A second way to quantify the costs of marijuana prohibition is to isolate the yearly financial burden inflicted on the criminal justice system by arresting over half a million otherwise law-abiding citizens on marijuana charges. Every time a marijuana arrest occurs -- even the most trivial arrest -- at least two police officers are taken off the street for several hours to prepare the paperwork and process the defendant. (This occurs even if the individual is allowed to later go free on bond.) If one assumes for simplicity that all the approximately 600,000 marijuana arrests reported in 1995 were simple cases involving no prior use of police time or resources and taking no more than two hours to process, then marijuana prohibition costs law enforcement a minimum of 2,400,000 man hours annually. These are police man hours and fiscal costs that could be better spent targeting violent crime. For example, following the adoption of marijuana decriminalization in California in 1976, the state saved an average of $95.8 million annually. 42
Of course, these fiscal costs do not end with an arrest. In many instances, police continue to investigate the facts of the case, prosecutors prepare the case for trial or negotiate a plea bargain (estimated at between five and ten hours per case), 43 and judges and court personnel engage in a trial or accept a plea agreement in open court. These prosecutorial costs alone likely cost Americans hundreds of millions of dollars annually.
Clearly more sophisticated economic analysis is needed in this area. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that government is interested in calculating the precise cost of marijuana prohibition because it does not want to have to justify these costs to the American public. It is wasteful and disadvantageous to spend billions of otherwise limited federal dollars on a failed and ineffective public policy at the expense of already underfunded social programs.