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Harrison, Lana D., Michael Backenheimer and James A. Inciardi (1995), Cannabis use in the United States: Implications for policy. In: Peter Cohen & Arjan Sas (Eds)(1996), Cannabisbeleid in Duitsland, Frankrijk en de Verenigde Staten. Amsterdam, Centrum voor Drugsonderzoek, Universiteit van Amsterdam. pp. 248-253.
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6  Marijuana policy and prevalence


Lana D. Harrison, Michael Backenheimer and James A. Inciardi

What if any is the relationship between the marijuana policy of the United States and the prevalence of marijuana use within its borders? As stated elsewhere in this paper the United States does not, per se, have a marijuana policy. It does, however, have a drug policy and it is under this rubric that marijuana policy must be examined.

Marijuana and other drug arrests are one mechanism by which policy may be examined. Arrests for marijuana were stable during most of the 1970s while marijuana use was increasing in the general population. Arrests were also stable in the 1980s, while use was decreasing. Arrests for cocaine/opiates were relatively stable in the 1970s while cocaine use was increasing and opiate use stable. Arrests increased steadily over the 1980s, while cocaine prevalence was stable to increasing in the first part of the decade, and dropping significantly in the latter half.

There does not appear to be a consistent pattern between arrest rates and prevalence rates in the general population, although the commingling of opiates and cocaine arrests make interpretation of the data for these drugs difficult. The police apparently intensified efforts aimed at opiates/cocaine beginning about 1982, but cocaine use appears to have already stabilized. Following precipitous increases, marijuana use began decreasing in the late 1970s, during a period of relative stability in arrest rates. The general deterrence effects of the law (i.e., arrest practices), are not apparent based on the intercorrelations of the measures presented here. Of course, the interrelationship between the measures of arrests and drug use may be spurious at best. Further, there may be a lag between policy changes such as arrest practices and new laws that would not be reflected in prevalence rates among the general population for some period of time. However, it is instructive to note that there appears to be little relationship between drug use prevalence and arrest rates. The same is true for seizures, production and other supply reduction measures. Most likely, the increases in law enforcement activities related to drugs account for the increased arrests and seizures.

Several studies have demonstrated the low risk of arrest among drug abusing criminals. A study of male addicts in Baltimore city over an eleven year period by Nurco and colleagues, found that less than 1% percent of the crimes committed resulted in arrest (Ball, Shaffer and Nurco, 1982). Similarly, a study of narcotic users in Miami between 1978 and 1981 by Inciardi found less than 1% of criminal offenses resulted in arrest (Inciardi, 1986). These results were subsequently replicated in another study by Inciardi and Pottieger (1991) of Miami youth conducted in the late 1980s, which found that less than 1% of their crimes in the prior year resulted in arrest. Still, about 87% of the youth had been arrested in the prior year, generally for drug, vice or petty property offenses.

Given the cited findings of Nurco and Inciardi and Pottieger, it seems reasonable to assume that an individual's risk of being arrested for possession of marijuana is quite small. The consequences of being arrested for possession of small amounts of marijuana are, however, far from uniform. It is almost totally dependent upon what state, county and locale is involved in the arrest. Most of those arrested, particularly in urban areas, will be issued a summons to appear in court, be allowed almost immediately to post bail or be released on their own recognizance. Again, in most instances, the case will be 'diverted' before trial or a 'guilty' plea to a misdemeanor will be accepted. Punishment most often takes the form of a fine, unsupervised probation, and 'drug' education or other classes. Criminal records may be 'expunged' or 'sealed' (Kleiman, 1992, p. 267).

However, for others, particularly in rural areas and in some southern jurisdictions, an arrest for simple possession of marijuana can mean a criminal conviction and, possibly, incarceration. While 10 states currently have some form of decriminalization on the books, many states, for a first offense of simple possession, still mete out fines in excess of $500 and/or 9 months or longer in jail. (See Appendix 1.)

California is an example of a state that has recently de-emphasized drug arrests. The number of persons charged with drug offenses dropped 18.4% for the first six months of 1991 as compared to the same 1990 period. The downward trend mirrors a change in police priorities in a time of limited budgets. In Los Angeles drug arrests fell 23% between 1990 and 1991, the result of budget cuts resulting in the loss of 400 officers and the necessary adjustment in priorities, i.e. reducing the priority given minor drug crimes. Essentially the same story is true in San Francisco (The Economist, 1992, p. 21.) Thus, in at least some communities, drug arrests may be driven by the economics of the community, their budget, and their tax base. Those communities faced with reducing law enforcement costs may well reduce their number of arrests for minor drug infractions, no matter what the number of these infractions actually are.

One study using data collected for the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse found some differentials with respect to the probability of being arrested for marijuana use (Johnson, Petersen and Wells, 1977). The study found that men consistently have a higher probability of arrest than women (risk of arrest was determined by the ratio of the arrest rate to the estimated user rate). In addition, arrest probabilities are higher for blue-collar workers than for students and white-collar workers. The probability of arrest is greater for students than for white-collar workers.

The study showed that in that period, approximately two-thirds of the marijuana arrestees were spontaneously taken into custody, without the occurrence of any prior investigative activity. Such arrests were usually made by general patrol officers in the course of their usual policing activities. The primary variable in such cases was whether or not the police carried out a search after the initial police-citizen contact. Males, more often than females, were arrested by general patrol officers, often in their vehicles, often alone. Frequently, those arrested had prior records. Female arrests tended to be the result of investigative effort and occurred indoors in a nonpublic area. Those arrestees listed as students were less often the result of investigative efforts than blue or white-collar arrestees and often were the result of a routine traffic stop.

Another relatively recent study found marijuana arrests to be racist in terms of relative arrest rates (Mandel, 1988). Comparing California misdemeanor arrests for marijuana in the period 1980-81 to 1985-86, the author found a decline of 18% for whites, an increase of 13% for Latinos and a decline of just 9% for blacks. The felony arrests for marijuana in the same period are even more telling. Whites showed a decline of 37% in the cited period while Latinos showed an increase of 172% and blacks showed an increase of 23%. The dramatic differences between ethnic groups cannot all be accounted for by one group or the other entering into or leaving the marijuana trade or the underclasses entering the illicit drug trade. It would appear that differential enforcement was present at the time of the research and that such enforcement did indeed have a racial overtone.

While there are definite trends with respect to arrest data, there are no uniformities of arrest policies between jurisdictions. The probability of being arrested for marijuana possession is much more a matter of demographics than it is of policy. About all that can said is that demographics and geographic area drive arrests for marijuana offenses.

This position is supported by research findings. These data show the minimum function played by legal factors (arrest and incarceration) as compared with extralegal variables in the decision to use or not use marijuana. Concern with formal sanctions or consequences have, at best, only a minimal participation in accounting for differences in rates of marijuana use. It is argued that the natural course of the drug market place including education about the negative effects of particular drugs may be far more significant in determining use than formal intervention (Committee on Drugs and the Law, June 1994, p. 547).

In trying to explain this divergence between policy (as measured by arrests) and use it is important to remember that use of marijuana appears to be on the increase only among the young. However, there does not appear to be any relationship between the cited arrest data and use of marijuana among youth. Marijuana use peaked among youth in 1979 with the 1980s showing a high but declining rate of use. Recent data (1993 and 1994) from MTF show a reversal of this decline with marijuana rates once more on the rise. Data from the 1993 Household Survey indicate marijuana use up only among those aged 12-17. This rise is occurring even though the Federal drug policy is one of 'no tolerance' and drug testing is becoming a standard operating procedure for industry and the military.

It may be that the youth of the United States feel themselves invulnerable to the threats of a 'no tolerance' policy. Getting arrested is thus something that happens to someone else. While this may not be the ideal stance to assume with respect to an illegal substance, there are data to support the rarity of arrest (cf. Inciardi and Pottieger, 1991). Another possibility is that the young are perceiving marijuana to be less harmful than they did in the 1980s. Data from MTF tends to support this position.

Still a third possibility is that the youth are making a political statement (not unlike their parents of the 1960s). They may see the Clinton Presidency as being weaker on drugs than the Reagan and Bush Administrations. The President admits to marijuana use (inhaling or not) and has significantly reduced the staffing of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. In this same light they may see a Republican Congress, definitely conservative in mood, not in keeping with youthful idealism and hope. Whatever the reason for the dichotomies between youthful rates of use and arrest statistics, it does appear that the hard line on drugs taken by law enforcement agencies, the military and private industry is not sufficient to stem the tide of use among the youth of America.

Additional information on the relationship between drug use and social policy may be gleaned from changes in marijuana use in the 11 states in which it was decriminalized between 1973 and 1978 [Oregon, Colorado, Alaska, Ohio, California, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, North Carolina, New York and Nebraska (Slaughter, 1988)]. Although sales remained a criminal offense, decriminalization reduced the sanctions associated with marijuana possession (an ounce or less) to a $100 civil fine (Inciardi, 1981). Studies were conducted in Oregon (Drug Abuse Council, 1977), California (California Health and Welfare Agency, 1977), and Maine (State of Maine, 1979) within a few years of decriminalization. Unfortunately, baseline information was not available in these states, and the studies basically provide only crude impact measures. The studies were also conducted at a time when marijuana use was increasing among the general population of the U.S. Nevertheless, the studies detected little increase in use following decriminalization. The most frequently cited reasons for non-use by respondents was 'not interested,' cited by about 80% of non-users. Only 4% of adults indicated fear of arrest and prosecution or unavailability as factors preventing use (Maloff, 1981).

In an analysis of four administrations of the Household Survey (1972, National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse; 1974, 1976, 1977, National Institute on Drug Abuse), Saveland and Bray (1981) concluded that the increases in marijuana use were most rapid in those states maintaining severe penalties against possession of marijuana. Changing penalties appeared to have no noticeable impact on the prevalence of marijuana use (Saveland and Bray, 1981).

A supplement to the Monitoring the Future study looked at the rates of marijuana use among 17-18 year old high school students and young adults in their early 20s between 1975 and 1980, in ten of the eleven states that decriminalized marijuana. (Alaska is not included in the study.) The investigators concluded that decriminalization had virtually no effect either on marijuana use or on related attitudes and beliefs about marijuana use (Johnston et al., 1981). More recent research on adolescent marijuana use in Alaska, which had the most liberal marijuana laws in the US until they were repealed in 1991, concluded that while adolescents showed higher rates of lifetime and annual use of marijuana than their peers in the coterminous United States, they had lower rates of daily use (Trebach, 1987; Slaughter, 1988).


BALL, J.C., J.W. SHAFFER, AND D.N. NURCO. 1982. 'The day-to-day criminality of heroin addicts in Baltimore- A study in the continuity of offense rates.' Revised paper presented to the American Society of Criminology.

CALIFORNIA HEALTH AND WELFARE AGENCY. 1977. A first report of the impact of California's new marijuana law (SB95): As requested by the legislature. Health and Welfare Agency, State Office of Narcotics and Drug Abuse.

COMMITTEE ON DRUGS AND THE LAW. 1994. 'A Wiser Course: Ending Drug Prohibition,' The Record of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York, 49(5), pp. 521-577.

DRUG ABUSE COUNCIL. 1977. 'Marijuana survey - State of Oregon.' News release. Washington, DC.

THE ECONOMIST. January 4, 1992. 'The Drug Peace in California,' p. 21.

INCIARDI, J.A. 1986. The War on Drugs: Heroin, Cocaine, Crime and Social Policy. Palo Alto, CA: Mayfield Publishing Co.

INCIARDI, J.A. AND A.E. POTTIEGER. 1991. 'Kids, crack and crime.' Journal of Drug Issues 21(2):257-270.

JOHNSON, WELDON T., ROBERT E. PETERSEN AND L. EDWARD WELLS. 1977. 'Arrest Probabilities for Marijuana Users as Indicators of Selective Law Enforcement,' American Journal of Sociology, 83:3, pp. 681-699.

JOHNSTON, L.D, P.M. O'MALLEY, AND J.G. BACHMAN. 1981. 'Marijuana decriminalization: The impact on youth 1975-1980.' Monitoring the Future Occasional Paper 13. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan.

KLEIMAN, MARK A.R. 1992. Against Excess. New York: Basic Books.

MALOOF, D. 1981. 'A review of the effects of the decriminalization of marijuana.' Contemporary Drug Problems Fall:307-322.

MANDEL, JERRY. 1988. 'Is Marijuana Law Enforcement Racist?' Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 20:1, pp. 83-91.

SAVELAND, W. AND D.F. BRAY. 1981. 'Trends in cannabis use among American states with different and changing legal regimes, 1972-77.' Contemporary Drug Problems Fall, pp. 335-365.

SLAUGHTER, J. 1988. 'Marijuana prohibition in the United States.' Columbia Journal of Law and Social Problems 21(1), pp. 417-475.

THE STATE OF MAINE. 1979. The Decriminalization of Marijuana and the Maine Criminal Justice System: A Time/Cost Analysis - 1979. Augusta, ME: Department of Human Services, Maine Office of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Prevention.

TREBACH, A. 1987. The Great Drug War. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1987.

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