Cannabis Policy (Marijuana)


Cannabis is the most widely used illegal drug in America. The prohibition of cannabis results in arrests and prosecutions that punish millions of Americans, drives racial inequality, and reduces access to employment, education, and social services. Cannabis prohibition funnels billions of dollars to gangs, criminals and cartels, generates violence, diverts law enforcement, and causes significant environmental damage. Around the world, people are realizing that these harms could be greatly reduced by legalizing and regulating cannabis production and use. Regulation can also be more effective than prohibition at reducing youth use of the drug, though the details of the regulatory system will impact the resulting levels of cannabis use. Because of risks associated with the drug, expanded use is likely to have social costs.

Cannabis Use

Cannabis is the only drug in America that is both widely used and criminalized in most states (though now legal in four). Nearly 20 million Americans use cannabis regularly, usually by smoking the dried buds, and more than 45% of adults have tried it. Yet the US government classifies cannabis as a Schedule I illegal drug, suggesting that has higher "abuse potential" than cocaine or methamphetamine and cannot be used safely for medical purposes, unlike medications like Oxycontin and other drugs causing tens of thousands of deaths per year. A majority of Americans support cannabis regulation, and voters in Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, and the District of Columbia have already legalized cannabis for adult use.

Cannabis Criminalization

In most states, individuals caught with any amount of cannabis can be arrested, taken to jail, fined, and given a permanent criminal record. Police make nearly 700,000 arrests each year for cannabis violations, and almost 90% of those are for possession alone.

While anyone in illegal possession of cannabis can potentially be arrested for cannabis violations, police disproportionately enforce cannabis laws against minorities. The American Civil Liberties Union reports that despite similar rates of cannabis use across racial groups, Black Americans are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than Whites, with the disparity rising to more than 8:1 in some parts of the country. Many police officers do not consider possession of cannabis for personal use to be a serious offense, but they often use suspicion of marijuana use or possession as a pretext to stop and search people—whether driving, walking or socializing. The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of stopping motorists for any kind of suspected violation, even if the objective is to search for evidence without the necessity of obtaining a search warrant. See here for more information on racial disparities in drug law enforcement.

Cannabis and Incarceration

Local jails hold three classes of offenders: 1) those who are awaiting trial and have not been granted pretrial release, 2) those who are serving relatively short sentences, typically less than a year, and 3) those who are being transported from one facility to another.

Prisons hold persons who have been convicted of misdemeanors or felonies and who are serving relatively longer sentences, frequently one year or more. Prisons also hold persons who had been serving sentences of parole or probation, which have been revoked because they (1) were accused of committing another offense, (2) violated any one of numerous restrictive conditions of parole such as moving to a new residence without providing notice or missing an appointment with a parole officer, or (3) used marijuana or other illegal drugs.

As of 2004, only 1.4% of state prisoners were incarcerated on cannabis charges alone. However, every year over one hundred thousand people cycle through local jails on cannabis charges or are incarcerated for cannabis violations of their probation or parole.

Harms of Criminalization

Many people who have never been in legal trouble believe that cannabis convictions lead to mere “slaps on the wrist” for first-time offenders. That is often the case but still can be very inconvenient and expensive. In most states, however, cannabis possession can lead to being “booked” into jail, which is humiliating and terrifying. Going to court or to probation appointments causes defendants and their family members to lose their jobs, which can be tantamount to losing their housing.

Even worse, criminal records have a lifelong impact. People with cannabis arrest and conviction records can lose countless employment opportunities, eligibility for college loans and public assistance benefits. Their families can be evicted from public and private housing, and if they become homeless, social services agencies may put their kids in foster care. In most states, those with convictions are permanently barred from jury service, and in some they can temporarily or permanently lose the right to vote. Parents who test positive for cannabis can be reported to Child Protective Services and risk losing custody of their children. No one could reasonably argue cannabis use or possession merits such harsh lifelong consequences, but this is the reality for millions of Americans.

School disciplinary policies and practices are usually much harsher for marijuana infractions than for alcohol infractions. An unknown number of university students are quickly evicted from university housing for possessing or using marijuana, but they are not evicted for underage drinking.  In public schools, marijuana infractions trigger “one strike and you’re out” or “zero tolerance” expulsions or suspensions that are not imposed for other types of non-violent offenses.

While we characterize these features as “harms” of prohibition, they are more precisely “risks” of prohibition. It is certainly the case that many persons who use, possess, distribute or cultivate marijuana are never arrested or otherwise punished.  The risks of arrest are far greater in low-income, high-crime black and Latino communities than in middle-class white communities.

Harms of Cannabis Use

Marijuana use is not “harmless,” and users run a variety of risks of physical and mental illness as a consequence of their marijuana use. Roughly nine percent of marijuana users develop a dependence on the drug, continuing to use it even when it negatively impacts their lives. The person caught in excessive use may use marijuana in the morning upon arising or at breakfast; buy marijuana when they have no money for food, rent or other necessary expenses; or use marijuana compulsively to deal with stress, at socially inappropriate times, or in lieu of engaging in social activities. Smoking cannabis may also lead to coughing and pulmonary irritation. Finally, a number of studies suggest a correlation between heavy early adolescent marijuana use and increased risk of mental illness like psychosis and schizophrenia, but these studies don’t show causation and have methodological limitations.

It is likely that the risks of physical injury from the use of marijuana are far smaller than the risks incurred when engaging in many commonly accepted behaviors, such as sky diving, white water rafting, downhill skiing, scuba diving, surfing, boxing, playing competitive football, swimming, or bicycling.

Criminal Profits and Violence

Cannabis prohibition funds violence both in the U.S. and abroad. Every year, Americans spend an estimated $34 billion on cannabis. Where cannabis is illegal, profits fund Mexican cartels and U.S. gangs. In Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska, where cannabis is sold legally, cannabis businesses create jobs and pay millions in taxes.

As with alcohol, prohibition removes all legitimate businesses from the industry, granting violent criminal enterprises exclusive control of the market. The profits resulted in countless bribes leading to corruption in thousands of police departments and justice agencies. The necessary money laundering corrupts the financial industry. In addition, prohibition prevents cannabis distributors from settling disputes or enforcing contracts legally. Largely fueled by the drug trade, Mexican cartel battles claim 10,000 lives every year, in addition to thousands killed in U.S. gang turf wars.

Police Diversion

U.S. police make 700,000 cannabis arrests every year, and the time to process one arrest averages over an hour. The size and number of police narcotics units have swelled over the last four decades as federal grant money became tied to drug arrests. Today, police departments rarely dedicate resources to investigating burglary and violent crimes sufficient to solve most cases. Legalizing cannabis would free police officers to solve more violent and property crime cases.

Environmental Damage

To hide from law enforcement, U.S. cannabis growers often cultivate in National Forests and on other public lands, polluting the environment and disrupting ecosystems. Other growers hide their operations indoors, where they consume vast amounts of energy, contributing to global warming. Under legalization and regulation, cannabis growers would be subject to the same regulations that limit the environmental impact of other crops.

Youth Use

Evidence suggests that regulation can be more effective than prohibition in restraining use by adolescents. Since legalization in Colorado, there is no evidence that youth cannabis use has changed. In the state of Washington, youth cannabis use rates have remained stable or even fallen. Indeed, while national youth cannabis use rates have remained constant over the last 20 years, regulation of cigarettes has reduced youth tobacco use by 50%. Cigarette stores will not sell tobacco to kids, but street cannabis dealers will sell cannabis to teens. Prohibition creates a network of illegal street dealers primarily to serve the adult population, but who are happy to profit from sales to minors. Legal regulation replaces those dealers with licensed stores that do not sell to kids. In addition, financial savings from legalization can be spent on education and other drug use prevention efforts.

Budgetary Benefits

In addition to reducing harm and cannabis use, legalization and regulation of cannabis generates significant financial savings. Colorado earned $135 million in cannabis tax revenue in 2015, with much of that money going to public schools. The state of Washington earned $70 million in revenues in its first year of retail sales. These states have also saved millions of dollars in unnecessary and damaging cannabis arrests, citations, and prosecutions.

Cannabis and CJPF

CJPF advocates for the responsible legal regulation of cannabis. Executive Director Eric E. Sterling has served on the corporate boards of directors of the Marijuana Policy Project and the Marijuana Majority, and in 2013 he was appointed by Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley to the Natalie M. LaPrade Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission. In fall of 2014, Chief of Staff Amos Irwin argued for cannabis legalization in the Huffington Post, and in fall of 2015 he published “The People the Pot Laws Forgot,” arguing for legalization initiatives to also retroactively expunge prior cannabis convictions.