Marijuana arrests make up over half of all drug arrests in the U.S., and approximately 88 percent of marijuana arrests are for possession. Enforcing our state and federal marijuana laws costs the U.S. about $3.6 billion every year, yet doing so has had virtually no measurable impact on the availability of marijuana. It also ensnares hundreds of thousands of people in the criminal justice system.
Worse, our marijuana laws are enforced in ways that are demonstrably racist. Research has shown that African-Americans and whites use weed at roughly the same rate, but blacks are an estimated 3.73 times more likely than whites to be arrested for possession of marijuana.
That disparate arrest rate represents a nationwide average, but racial disparities exist across the country among counties of all demographics. For its report about the war on marijuana, ACLU researchers found African-Americans arrested for marijuana possession at higher rates than whites in 96 percent of U.S. counties with over 30,000 residents in which African-Americans made up at least 2 percent of the population.
In states where marijuana remains illegal, possession is typically a misdemeanor — but that doesn’t make it a minor offense. Here in Iowa, for example, a first-offense misdemeanor conviction can get you six months behind bars and a fine of up to $1,000. Since marijuana is a Schedule 1 drug under the Iowa Controlled Substances Act, however, that misdemeanor counts as a drug conviction. Drug convictions affect people’s opportunities for employment, housing and student financial aid and can have serious consequences in child custody and immigration cases.
The war on marijuana harshly penalizes users, which impacts their families and communities long-term. Yet the costly war against weed doesn’t seem to have succeeded. Instead, it has contributed significantly to over-policing and mass incarceration, and the enforcement of marijuana laws has been demonstrably racist. We can easily find a better way to spend $3.6 billion in law enforcement dollars.