NORML Report on Sixty Years of Marijuana Prohibition in the U.S.
III. Law Enforcement Arrests a Marijuana Smoker Every 45 seconds in America at a Tremendous Cost to Society.
In 1972, a blue-ribbon panel of experts appointed by President Richard Nixon and led by former Pennsylvania Governor Raymond Shafer concluded that marijuana prohibition posed significantly greater harm to the user than the use of marijuana itself. The National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse recommended that state and federal laws be changed to remove criminal penalties for possession of marihuana for personal use and for the casual distribution of small amounts of marijuana. 16 That year, law enforcement arrested almost 300,000 Americans on marijuana charges. 17
A 1982 National Academy of Sciences' (NAS) report on marijuana reaffirmed that criminal justice approaches were inappropriate and harmful. It recommended not only that marijuana possession be decriminalized, but that lawmakers give serious consideration to creating a system of regulated distribution and sale. 18 Law enforcement arrested over 450,000 Americans for violating marijuana laws that year. 19
In May of this year, research findings from a comprehensive, long term study performed by Kaiser Permanente concluded that no link existed between regular marijuana smoking and mortality and emphasized that marijuana prohibition posed the only significant health hazard to the user. The report advocated that "medical guidelines regarding [marijuana's] prudent use ... be established, akin to the common-sense guidelines that apply to alcohol use." In 1995, the most recent year for which the federal government has arrest statistics, law enforcement charged almost 600,000 Americans with marijuana violations. This figure is the greatest number ever recorded since marijuana prohibition began; it means that one marijuana smoker is arrested every 45 seconds in America.
Despite criticism that President Clinton is "soft" on drugs, annual data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) Uniform Crime Report demonstrate that Clinton administration officials are waging a more intensive war on marijuana smokers than any other presidency in history. Law enforcement arrested approximately 1.5 million Americans on marijuana charges during the first three years of Clinton's administration -- 84 percent of them for simple possession. The average number of yearly marijuana arrests under Clinton (483,548) is 30 percent higher than under the Bush administration (338,998), and last year's total alone is more than double the 1991 total (287,850). 22
Marijuana penalties vary nationwide, but most levy a heavy financial and social impact for the hundreds of thousands of Americans who are arrested each year. In 42 states, possession of any amount of marijuana is punishable by incarceration and/or a significant fine. 23 For example, individuals arrested for simple marijuana possession in Arizona may face eighteen months in jail and a $150,000 fine. 24 Many states also have laws automatically suspending the drivers' license of an individual if they are convicted of any marijuana offense, even if the offense was not driving related.
Penalties for marijuana cultivation and/or sale also vary from state to state. Ten states have maximum sentences of five years or less and eleven states have a maximum penalty of thirty years or more. 25 Some states punish those who cultivate marijuana solely for personal use as severely as large scale traffickers. For instance, medical marijuana user William Foster of Oklahoma was sentenced to 93 years in jail in January 1997 for growing 10 medium-sized marijuana plants and 56 clones (cuttings from another plant planted in soil) in a 25-square-foot underground shelter. 26 Foster maintains that he grew marijuana to alleviate the pain of rheumatoid arthritis. Unfortunately, Foster's plight is not an isolated event; marijuana laws in six states permit marijuana importers and traffickers to be sentenced to life in jail. 27
Even those who avoid state incarceration are subject to an array of punishments that may include submitting to random drug tests, probation, paying for mandatory drug counseling, loss of an occupational license, expensive legal fees, lost wages due to absence from work, loss of child custody, loss of federal benefits, and removal from public housing. In some states, police will notify the employers of people who are arrested. As a result, employees may lose their job. 28
Federal laws prohibiting marijuana are also severe. Under federal law, possessing one marijuana cigarette or less is punishable by a fine of up to $10,000 and one year in prison, the same penalty as for possessing small amounts of heroin and cocaine. In one extreme case, attorney Edward Czuprynski of Michigan served 14 months in federal prison for possession of 1.6 grams of marijuana before a panel of federal appellate judges reviewed his case and demanded his immediate release. 29 Cultivation of 100 marijuana plants or more carries a mandatory prison term of five years. Large scale marijuana cultivators and traffickers may be sentenced to death.
Presently, Congress is proposing that the amount of marijuana necessary to trigger the death penalty be substantially lowered. The "Drug Importer Death Penalty Act of 1997," introduced by admitted former marijuana smoker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), would potentially sentence first offenders convicted of bringing more than 50 grams (less than two ounces) of marijuana across U.S. borders to life in prison without parole. Those offenders convicted for a second time -- presumably the first offense would have been convicted before H.R. 41's enactment -- would be sentenced to death. Thirty-seven members of Congress are present cosponsors of this bill.
Federal laws also deny entitlements to marijuana smokers. Under legislation introduced by Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas) and signed into law last year, states may deny cash aid (e.g., welfare, etc.) and food stamps to anyone convicted of felony drug charges. For marijuana smokers, this includes most convictions for cultivation and sale, even for small amounts and nonprofit transfers. Currently, a murderer, rapist, or robber could receive federal funds and benefits, but not most individuals convicted of cultivating a small amount of marijuana.
In addition, under both state and federal law, mere investigation for a marijuana offense can result in the forfeiture of property, including cash, cars, boats, land, business equipment, and houses. Amazingly, the owner does not have to be found guilty or even formally charged with any crime for the seizure to occur. In 1993, Illinois Congressman Henry Hyde (R) reported that 80 percent of the individuals whose assets are seized by the federal government under drug forfeiture laws are never charged with a crime. Law enforcement often targets suspected marijuana offenders for the purpose of seizing their property, sometimes with tragic results. For example, millionaire rancher Donald Scott was shot and killed by law enforcement officials in 1992 at his Malibu estate in a botched raid. Law enforcement failed to find any marijuana plants growing on his property and later conceded that their primary motivation for investigating Scott was to eventually seize his land. 30
State and federal marijuana laws also have a disparate racial impact on ethnic minorities. While blacks and Hispanics make up only 20 percent of the marijuana smokers in the U.S., 31 they comprised 55 percent of the marijuana offenders sentenced under federal law in 1995. 32 State arrest and incarceration rates paint a similar portrait. For example, in Illinois, 57 percent of those sent to prison for marijuana in 1995 were black or Hispanic. 33 In California, 49 percent of those arrested for marijuana offenses in 1994 were black or Hispanic. And in New York state, 71 percent of those arrested for misdemeanor marijuana charges in 1995 were non-white. 35
Since the Shafer Commission reported their findings to Congress in 1972 advocating marijuana decriminalization, over ten million Americans have been arrested on marijuana charges. Marijuana prohibition is a failed public policy that is out of touch with today's social reality and inflicts devastating harm on millions of citizens.