Executive Summary

Allen St. Pierre
Executive Director NORML/NORML Foundation

Federal marijuana laws that rely primarily on criminal penalties and law enforcement are an ineffective policy tool to control the use and sale of marijuana.

-Marijuana Prohibition Does Not Produce Stated Public Goals- Public policies are measured by their ability to produce intended results. The stated goal of criminal marijuana prohibition is to deter marijuana use and promote public health. Therefore, the success or failure of U.S. marijuana policy must be evaluated by its performance at accomplishing these goals when measured against specific drug use and public health indicators. If current marijuana policy is to be judged as an effective public policy, then increasing the arrest rate for marijuana should produce an intended reduction in several of these key indicators, most importantly, the use and availability of marijuana among the population.

Despite total US marijuana arrests increasing 165% during the 1990s, from 287,850 in 1991 to 755,000 in 2003, this enhanced enforcement has not produced intended results, and in some cases, it has produced opposite, unintended consequences. Upon review of the available data, it is clear that increased arrest rates are not associated with reduced marijuana use, reduced marijuana availability, a reduction in the number of new users, reduced treatment admissions, reduced emergency room mentions, any reduction in marijuana potency, or any increases in the price of marijuana.

-How Much Does Marijuana Prohibition Cost The U.S. Annually?- Increased marijuana enforcement is associated with greater fiscal and social costs. State and local justice costs for marijuana arrests are now estimated to be $7.6 billion, approximately $10,400 per arrest. Of this total, annual police costs are $3.7 billion, judicial/legal costs are $853 million, and correctional costs are $3.1 billion. In both California and New York, state fiscal costs dedicated to criminal marijuana law enforcement annually total over $1 billion for each state.

-The Costs? The Benefits?- The social costs of criminal marijuana enforcement include demographic impacts and their effects on society. Marijuana possession and sales arrest disproportionately impact young males as well as black adults. These disproportionate impacts nurture alienation from the rule of law. Among the demographic groups most adversely impacted, males age 18 are .7% of the population and 3.1% of annual marijuana users, but comprise 8.1% of all marijuana possession arrests. Males aged 24 to 29 are 4% of the population and 9.7% of annual marijuana users, but comprise 13.7% of all possession arrests. Black adults account for 8.8% of the population, 11.9% of annual marijuana users, and 23% of marijuana possession arrests. Overall, 25% of marijuana possession arrests are of people age 18 or younger, and 74% are for people under the age of 30. Marijuana users who are white, over 30 year old, and/or female are disproportionately unaffected by marijuana possession arrests.

-Over One Million Teenagers In America Sell Marijuana- Maybe of greater note and indicative of an unintended consequence in the U.S. government¹s marijuana policy-making: Over one million teenagers in the U.S. sell marijuana.

-Marijuana Policy Measured By ONDCP¹s Own Criteria Is a Failure- Policy analysis is about results. There is now ample data available to review the performance of marijuana policy over the past decades, in particular the years between 1990 and 2000. Based on the data presented in this report, it is evident that present US marijuana policy is failing to achieve its desired results when measured against key drug use and public health indicators, as well as when evaluated by cost/benefit analysis.

Therefore, this report recommends the commencement of a serious national debate over replacing the current prohibition policy of marijuana control with a regulatory policy that provides legal access to marijuana for adults and removes the profit incentive for sale among teenagers.

-By The Numbers: Marijuana Arrests and Use in the United States- Despite nearly seventy years of expensive and rigorous government enforcement of marijuana prohibition there is, until the issuance of this report from the NORML Foundation, scarce amount of publicly available information on the scope and cost of marijuana prohibition.


This report comprehensively demonstrates much of what is not commonly known regarding who uses marijuana in the U.S., who gets arrested for it, at what age citizens are arrested on marijuana charges and how much are the general fiscal costs of maintaining marijuana prohibition. Lastly, how does the U.S. government policy on marijuana measure up against its stated goals and what are some serious-minded policy alternatives which may largely achieve the government¹s stated goals?

This comprehensive marijuana arrest and use report and analysis includes:

  1. State-by-state marijuana arrest and use data;
  2. County-by-county arrest data;
  3. Comprehensive marijuana sales data and sales arrest data;
  4. Detailed data and graphical information regarding marijuana arrests and use in regards to gender, race and age; information on state marijuana penalties, extensive historical background information examining marijuana policy-making in the United States circa 1972 and supporting citations.

Crimes of Indiscretion: Marijuana Arrests in the United States Author: Jon Gettman, Ph.D Published by The NORML Foundation (2005)