Liberalizing Marijuana Laws Enables Police To Focus Efforts On More Serious Crimes, Study Says

Washington, DC: Depenalizing minor marijuana possession offenses will not increase marijuana use and will enable law enforcement to reallocate criminal justice resources toward addressing more serious crimes, according to a report released today by the JFA Institute and commissioned by the NORML Foundation.

“With respect to the dual questions of decriminalization’s impact on [cannabis] use and crime, there seems to be broad consensus based on scientific data that it will have little, if any, impact,” states the report, entitled “Rethinking the Consequences of Decriminalizing Marijuana.” It adds: “Marijuana already is a widely used substance with over 26 million annual users. And despite increases in marijuana use since the early 1990s, the crime rate has plummeted over the same time frame. If there was a marijuana-crime link, it is not having its expected impact on crime.”

Regarding the merits of marijuana decriminalization as an alternative to criminal prohibition, the report concludes, “The major benefit of decriminalization, in addition to eliminating the needless arrest, prosecution, and court disposition of over 700,000 people each year, would be the ability of the criminal justice system to focus on more important public safety activities.”

According to the JFA report, it typically takes police over seven hours to complete the paperwork associated with a criminal arrest. “During this time, the officer’s presence to detect and deter other crimes that may be occurring [is] essentially eliminated,” the report states. Amending state laws to allow law enforcement the discretion to issue a citation to minor marijuana offenders would significantly free up police time and criminal justice resources that could be redirected toward combating other, more serious criminal activities, it concludes.

To date, 12 states – Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, MississippiNebraska, Nevada, New YorkNorth Carolina, Ohio, and Oregon – have adopted varying degrees of marijuana decriminalization for cases involving the personal use of cannabis.

Unlike previous analyses of decriminalization, the JFA report does not conclude that liberalizing cannabis laws will necessarily lead to a substantial reduction in criminal justice costs. This is because marijuana possession arrests, despite having risen substantially in recent years, still “represent a relatively small portion” of overall criminal cases. Among those arrested, most defendants are processed through lower or misdemeanor court systems and sentenced to supervised probation.

Furthermore, the report finds that “the vast majority of criminal justice costs are ‘fixed’ or ‘static’ and do not vary appreciably by the volume of activities, tasks or incidents undertaken by [law enforcement] agencies.” It concludes, “[T]he criminal justice system’s capacity to reconstitute itself and actually expand in the face of declining crime rates illustrates just how difficult it [would be] to generate actual [criminal justice] savings” by amending one specific aspect of criminal policy. “This is because most [law enforcement] costs are largely linked to agency personnel costs (salary and fringe benefits) which reflect 70-75 percent of a criminal justice budget and do not vary by marginal changes in workloads.”

The JFA Institute is a non-partisan, multi-disciplinary research center in Washington DC that conducts theoretical and applied research on various criminal justice issues.

Full text of the report, “Rethinking the Consequences of Decriminalizing Marijuana,” is available online at: