The Impact of Marijuana Law Enforcement in an Economic Model of Crime

By Shepard, Edward M.; Blackley, Paul R. | Journal of Drug Issues, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

The Impact of Marijuana Law Enforcement in an Economic Model of Crime


Shepard, Edward M., Blackley, Paul R., Journal of Drug Issues


U.S. law enforcement against the sale and possession of marijuana has been estimated to cost close to $8 billion a year in criminal justice resources. Current enforcement is justified if it provides net benefits greater than alternatives such as a legal, regulated market for marijuana. Prior research suggests that current levels of drug enforcement may increase nondrug crime and hard drug use. Here, local rates of property crime, homicide, and nonmarijuana drug possession are estimated as a function of economic conditions, enforcement effectiveness, and arrests for possession or sale of marijuana. The data consists of a pooled sample of over 1300 U.S. counties (1994-2001). The results suggest that marijuana arrests are associated with increases in homicides, burglaries, motor vehicle thefts, and larcenies along with subsequent increases in hard drug arrests. These results raise significant questions about the merits of policies that focus on criminal justice approaches to marijuana control.

INTRODUCTION

Federal and state policies regarding illegal drugs are numerous and have multiple objectives. In recent decades, the United States has emphasized criminal justice approaches to enforcing drug prohibitions with substantial and increasing resources allocated to law enforcement and prisons. Federal and state resources have been targeted for enforcement and interdiction in order to disrupt or limit the flow of drugs into the country and across states; to deter individuals from using or selling drugs through risk of arrest and application of severe penalties such as fines, property seizures, and imprisonment; and to arrest those who use, sell, or manufacture drugs. These policies have resulted in large and growing economic costs for the public sector with substantial increases in resources used by federal, state, and local governments for drug control and police agencies, prosecution and imprisonment, drug education and treatment, and research pertaining to drug control.1 At the federal level, spending for drug enforcement (including interdiction and intelligence) rose from about $1.5 billion in 1981 to over $12 billion by 2002. State level spending for drug control activities has been estimated to be even higher.2 Arrests for drug law violations have shown a similar pattern, increasing from under 600,000 a year in 1980 to over 1.5 million today (U.S. Department of Justice [DOJ], 2002d). In part because of strict drug laws and increased penalties, the prison population has grown to over two million inmates (DOJ, 2002b).

By any measure, the opportunity costs of enforcing marijuana laws in the United States are large. A recent study estimates the size of the marijuana market to exceed $ 10 billion a year and estimates the annual cost of marijuana law enforcement to be about $7.7 billion (Miron, 2005).3 Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) officials have reported that marijuana investigations remain a top priority. In 2003, there were over 750,000 arrests for marijuana, 88% of which were for possession only. Over two million marijuana arrests have been made during the past three years, and over six million have been made over the last 10 years (Getman, 2005). At the federal level, marijuana remains in the most prohibited category as a "Schedule 1" drug, which is reserved for highly addictive, dangerous drugs with no legitimate medical uses. Cocaine and many amphetamines, in contrast, are classified as "Schedule 2" drugs, legal under certain restrictive conditions, and tightly controlled. Unless this scheduling of marijuana changes, marijuana arrests and prosecutions are likely to remain a high priority for the federal government, influencing the allocation of public sector resources and relations with other nations at the borders and around the world."

Marijuana laws are being increasingly questioned in the U.S. There is growing evidence for the medical utility of marijuana for specific conditions, and a lack of evidence for the significant harm or adverse health effects associated with alcohol, tobacco, other illicit substances, and even commonly prescribed prescription medications (Earleywine, 2005). …

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