Marijuana arrests

A PRICE TO PAY: The Social Costs of Federal Marijuana Policies

Welcome to Part Two in our three-part series on the state of marijuana in these United States. In Part One, we broke down policy by state, and dove into the inherent conflict between state and federal pot laws. In this segment, we’ll go deeper into the social costs of the current policy—from inordinately long jail sentences, to the racially skewed arrests to the violent black market—all fuelled by an outdated and illogical national approach to cannabis.

A Nation Imprisoned

The war on marijuana has cost the US billions of dollars over decades and has contributed to the staggering growth of America’s incarcerated population. In spite of these costs, millions still consume marijuana — a drug that most view as relatively safe.

Marijuana arrests are rising in the US, even as more states legalize the cannabis. There were 659,700 arrests for pot possession in 2017, according to F.B.I. figures—far outpacing arrests for violent crimes. To illustrate: more people were arrested over pot in 2016 than for murder, rape, aggravated assault and robbery — combined, according to a study by the ACLU and Human Rights Watch.

These staggering arrest rates are compounded by unduly harsh sentencing laws, which seem poised to get worse before they get better. In 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions rolled back years of prison justice progress by reinstating mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug offenses. In a single memo, he directed federal prosecutors to seek the harshest possible sentences—a policy that the Obama-era Justice Department had mostly walked away from.  By way of example: anyone with prior felony convictions can be sentenced to life for possessing more than one kilogram of marijuana. In one extreme case, Lee Carroll Brooker, a 75-year-old disabled veteran, was sentenced to life in prison without parole for growing several plants for personal medicinal use.

Of course, all of this contributes to the glaring over-incarceration rates in the US. According to the ACLU, the US has nearly 25% of the world’s prison population. That population that has increased by 700% since 1970, with some 2.3 million people in jail and prison today, far outpacing population growth and crime.

Racially Skewed Incarcerations

This already bleak situation is made worse by the racist bent of marijuana arrests and incarceration. Research shows that there’s a clear racial discrepancy in who is arrested for marijuana possession, and that discrepancy even exists in states that have legalized marijuana. Black and white Americans use marijuana at similar rates, but black people were 3.7 times more likely to be arrested than white Americans for marijuana possession in 2010—and up to 9 times more in some states. Young black men are disproportionately affected and punished by a faulty criminal justice system that can wreak havoc on their lives. These arrests on their own can create huge problems — leading to criminal records that can make it harder to get a job, housing, or financial aid for college.

Black Market Violence

Another costly social consequence of the federal prohibition on marijuana is the continued bolstering of a criminal black market. Most of the marijuana consumed in the US originates in Mexico, where seven major cartels—renowned for extreme violence—control the illicit drug trade.

However, recent research has shown that there has been a drop in violent crime in US border states that have legalized medical marijuana. The crimes that dropped most significantly were robbery, which fell by 19 percent, and murder, which dropped by 10 percent. Homicides specifically related to the drug trade fell by an impressive 41 percent. According to the study’s authors, “These laws allow local farmers to grow marijuana that can then be sold to dispensaries where it is sold legally… these growers are in direct competition with Mexican drug cartels that are smuggling the marijuana into the US. As a result, the cartels get much less business,” says Evelina Gavrilova, one of the study’s authors. “Whenever there is a medical marijuana law we observe that crime at the border decreases because suddenly there is a lot less smuggling and a lot less violence associated with that.”

Negative effects of outdated “war on drugs” policies cost our society—from over-incarceration, to punitive justice policies, to a violent black market that funds criminal enterprises.

Conversely, marijuana’s effects at the individual and social level are typically less harmful than even legal substances like alcohol. Americans are broadly ready to move on from drug and criminal justice policies that negatively impact the country, while doing little to solve ongoing drug crises or reduce crime.


Christina Rock is a Seattle based writer and photographer who loves late sixties music and days that go better than planned.