Drug War Disproportionately Targets Minor Marijuana Offenders, Study Says

Washington, DC: Low level marijuana offenders are disproportionately targeted by law enforcement, comprising more than 80 percent of the growth in drug arrests since 1990, according to a report released this week by the Sentencing Project in Washington, DC.

“Law enforcement has focused disproportionately on low level possession charges as a result of the nation’s lack of a thoughtful strategy about how best to address the consequences of marijuana use,” the report concluded. “Consequently, police spend a significant amount of time arresting marijuana users, many of whom do not merit being charged in court. This diverts efforts away from more significant criminal activity while having no appreciable impact on marijuana cost, availability, or use.”

Marijuana arrests now constitute nearly half of all drug arrests, the report found. Since 1990, marijuana arrests have increased by 113 percent, while overall arrests decreased 3 percent.

In total, approximately 7.2 million Americans have been arrested on marijuana charges since 1990. However, on average, only 1 of every 18 marijuana arrests results in some type of felony sentence, the report found.

“As states continue to struggle under budgetary constraints, the wisdom of making nearly 700,000 marijuana arrests annually, the majority of which will be dismissed or processed as misdemeanors, is called into question,” authors wrote.

Overall, approximately $4 billion is spent annually to arrest, prosecute and incarcerate marijuana offenders, the report estimated. A previous report issued earlier this year by the NORML Foundation, estimated the fiscal costs of marijuana prohibition at more than $7 billion.

Currently, some 68,500 Americans are either incarcerated or on probation for marijuana violations, the Sentencing Project report determined. Of these, an estimated 11,200 were first time marijuana offenders serving time in state or federal prison.

“Assertions that ‘nobody’ goes to prison for marijuana are misguided and oversimplify the policy issue,” authors wrote. “Law enforcement agencies should categorize enforcement of marijuana possession as a low priority so as to conserve police resources for more serious offenses.”

For more information, please contact either Allen St. Pierre or Paul Armentano of NORML at (202) 483-5500. Full text of the Sentencing Project report, “The War on Marijuana: The Transformation of the War on Drugs in the 1990s,” is available online at: