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Caught with a Bag of Weed? It Could Cost You More Than You Think

U.S. arrests for pot possession were up to 739,000 in 2006. And the cost to tax payers? $1 billion a year.
 
 
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What's the current price for a bag of weed? According to the latest figures from the FBI, the human cost is roughly 739,000 a year.

That's the number of American citizens arrested in 2006 for possessing small amounts of pot. (Another 91,000 were charged with marijuana-related felonies.) The figure is the highest annual total ever recorded, and is nearly double the number of citizens busted for pot fifteen years ago.

Those arrested face a multitude of consequences, primarily determined by where they live. For example, most Californians charged with violating the state's pot possession laws face little more than a small fine. By contrast, getting busted with a pinch of weed in Ohio will cost you your driver's license for at least six months. Move to Texas -- well, now you're looking at a criminal record and up to 180 days in jail. Or if you happen to be a first-time offender, possibly a stint in court-mandated 'drug rehab' (one recent study reported that nearly 70 percent of all adults referred to Texas drug treatment programs for weed were referred by the courts), probation, and a hefty legal bill. And don't even think about getting busted in Oklahoma, where a first time conviction for minor pot possession can net you up to one year in jail, or up to ten years if you're found guilty of a second offense. Thinking of growing your own? That'll cost you a $20,000 fine, and -- oh yeah -- anywhere from two years to life in prison.

Yes, you read that right -- life in prison.

Of course, not everyone busted for weed receives jail time. But that doesn't mean that they don't suffer significant hardships stemming from their arrest -- including (but not limited to): probation and mandatory drug testing, loss of employment, loss of child custody, removal from subsidized housing, asset forfeiture, loss of student aid, loss of voting privileges, and the loss of certain federal welfare benefits such as food stamps.

And yes, some offenders do serve prison time. In fact, according to a 2006 Bureau of Justice Statistics report, 12.7 percent of state inmates and 12.4 percent of federal inmates incarcerated for drug violations are incarcerated for marijuana offenses. In human terms, this means that there are now about 33,655 state inmates and 10,785 federal inmates behind bars for violating marijuana laws. (The report failed to include estimates on the percentage of inmates incarcerated in county jails for pot-related offenses.)

In fiscal terms, this means that taxpayers are spending more than $1 billion annually to imprison pot offenders.

Yet this billion dollar price tag only estimates the financial costs on the 'back end' of a marijuana arrest. The criminal justice costs to taxpayers -- such as the man-hours it takes a police officer to arrest and process the average pot offender -- on the 'front end' is far greater, with some economists estimating the financial burden to be in upwards of $7 billion a year. Naturally, as the annual number of pot arrests continues to increase (according to the latest FBI data, marijuana arrests now constitute 44 percent of all illicit drug arrests), these costs are only going to grow larger.

There are alternatives, of course -- options that won't leave this sort of human and fiscal carnage in its wake, and that won't leave entire generations believing that the police are an instrument of their oppression rather than their protection.

'Decriminalization,' as first recommended to Congress in 1972 by President Nixon's National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse, called for the removal of all criminal and civil penalties for the possession, use, and non-profit distribution of cannabis. Such a policy, if adequately implemented, would eliminate the bulk of the human and fiscal costs currently associated with enforcing pot prohibition.

A second option, 'regulation,' would also significantly slash many of society's prohibition-associated fiscal and human costs. Legalizing the commercial sale and use of cannabis in a manner similar to alcohol, with state-mandated age controls and pot sales restricted to state-licensed stores, could also potentially raise billions of added dollars in tax revenue while simultaneously bringing an end to the more egregious and adverse black-market effects of the plant's criminalization -- such as the production of pot by criminal enterprises and its clandestine cultivation on public lands.

Would either option be perfect? No, probably not. ('Decriminalization,' for instance, might indirectly encourage pot use; 'regulation' might not entirely eliminate the black market sales of pot.) But how can continue with the status quo? Since, 1990, law enforcement have arrested over 10 million Americans -- more than the entire population of Los Angeles county -- on pot charges. Yet, according to federal figures, both marijuana production and use are rising. Isn't it time we began looking at ways to address the marijuana issue that move beyond simply arresting and prosecuting an inordinate amount of otherwise law-abiding Americans? Or must we wait until another 10 million citizens are arrested before our state and federal politicians find the courage to begin this discussion?

Paul Armentano is the deputy director for NORML and NORML Foundation in Washington, DC.

 
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