The Futility of Pot Busts

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On Friday NORML published a 188-page report on U.S. marijuana arrests that includes national figures and state-by-state breakdowns. Among its findings:

* It costs state and local governments about $7.6 billion a year, $10,400 per arrest, to enforce their marijuana laws.

* Marijuana possession and sales arrests disproportionately affect blacks and the young.

* The 165-percent increase in marijuana arrests between 1991 and 2003, from 287,850 to 755,000, was not associated with an increase in marijuana's price or a reduction in marijuana use, availability, potency, treatment admissions, or emergency room mentions.

The states with the highest per capita marijuana arrests were Nebraska, Louisiana, Wyoming, Kentucky, and Illinois.

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  1. “Marijuana possession and sales arrests disproportionately affect blacks and the young.”

    Wouldn’t most anti-drug crusaders say that’s the point?

  2. Marijuana possession and sales arrests disproportionately affect blacks and the young.

    Out of 188 pages, couldn’t you have come up with a more relevant conclusion? All this says is that people who use marijuana are more likely to get caught with marijuana. Big whoop. Murderers are more likely to get arrested for murder.

    While I am firmly against the drug war, I cringe when pointless tidbits like this are brought into the debate.

  3. “It costs state and local governments about $7.6 billion a year, $10,400 per arrest, to enforce their marijuana laws.”

    This is money well spent, since one can’t sink too many resources to protect this nation’s most vulnerable pizzas and corn chips.

  4. Two points:
    1.) The disproportionate arrests and convictions of black people for drugs crimes is not an artifact of greater usage; rates are roughly similar. Disposition by the police (do I just take the joint or bring the kid in?) and in the courts (do we call this a felony or a misdemeanor?) are very different for black and white people.

    2.) The Drug War is Being Won. That is to say, a white, upper-middle-class, professional like me (for example, me) is much less willing to use marijuana or openly support its legalisation in a water-cooler conversation than if we weren’t paying for the Drug War. We, the people they care about (not to say “like”, we’re too poor to be part of Their Base), are being kept in line, and that’s all they care about. They don’t give a fschk what some ghetto or white trash (their thoughts, not mine) kid does—hell, it makes them easier to arrest! Meanwhile, rich people mostly just do what they please, so God’s in His Heaven. Where’s the problem?

  5. All this says is that people who use marijuana are more likely to get caught with marijuana.

    It says nothing of the sort. What it shows is that regardless of actual rates, you’re more likely to suffer from an arrest for using/selling if you’re black and/or young. How does that show that you’re more likely to use/sell if you’re black and/or young? It doesn’t.

  6. I didn’t say that. What I said was that the statistic is pointless and has no bearing on the debate.

    Now if the point had been asserted that, “The drug war causes blacks and young people to be the victims of intensified, and unjustified, law enforcement attention,” then it would be relevant.

  7. That certain groups are disproportionately affected is beside the point. They may represent a disproportionate number of marijuana users. If they do not, then their disproportionate arrest rates are unjust.

  8. Saying that certain subgroups are disproportionately affected by a policy is shorthand for class-warfare type arguments. This debate should not be about how to make drug prosecutions more even (and “fair,” if such a word could be applied here) across the demographic board, but how to reduce the detrimental affects of the drug war to all citizens.

    If a group is truly disproportionately involved in a certain type of criminal behavior (I’m leaving aside the legitimacy of calling it a ‘crime’), then why shouldn’t they be arrested at rates disproportionate to their fractional population? (I am NOT suggesting that blacks or youth are more likely to exhibit criminal behavior)

  9. It’s not a matter of “if,” DB. They (the arrests) represent a racial disparity in ARREST RATE, NOT USAGE RATES AMONG THE DIFFERENT RACES. This disparity, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, strongly suggests continued racism in the tax-and-spend drug war by the government, with our tax-dollars, and THAT is what’s wrong (well, one of the many things that’s wrong) with the failed policy prescriptions of hysterical conservatives!
    Not-Daniel.

  10. They (the arrests) represent a racial disparity in ARREST RATE, NOT USAGE RATES AMONG THE DIFFERENT RACES.

    Did you read my subsequent posts? If that’s the case, then it’s another good reason that the drug war is bad. But the quoted statistic means nothing unless you read the injustice into it. This sort of shorthand argument does not serve our purposes. If it truly represents a racist policy in implementation of the law (and I believe it does), then say so. Don’t just wave your hands in the air and say “the arrest rates are higher for this group than that group.”

    Do you guys see what I’m saying? This line of argumentation is intellectually lazy and, frankly, not helpful to the cause. It requires a certain point of view to decipher the original statistic into the conclusion, however valid it may be, that such disparate arrest rates are unjust.

  11. I think all that says is that old white people continue to avoid using pot, thus are much less likely to be caught “holding”. Now, if sherry was illegal, this would be a different story.

  12. db said: “Did you read my subsequent posts? If that’s the case, then it’s another good reason that the drug war is bad. But the quoted statistic means nothing unless you read the injustice into it.”

    Did you follow the link? From the summary: “While adult African Americans account for only 8.8% of the US population and 11.9% of annual marijuana users, they comprise 23% of all marijuana possession arrests in the United States.”

    A black person _who uses marijuana_ is on average about twice as likely to be arrested for possession than a white person _who uses marijuana_.

  13. So, as I understand it, pot usage rates are more or less comparable among the different races. But arrest rates are wildly different.

    How is this not evidence that the drug war is being used as a weapon against blacks? And how is this not a very, very, very bad thing?

    Don’t get me wrong, it might not be politically wise to point out that the drug war disproportionately affects blacks, because that may make some people conclude that the drug was is actually OK. So maybe the argument is unpopular and should hence be kept quiet. But that doesn’t undermine its veracity one iota.

  14. How is this not evidence that the drug war is being used as a weapon against blacks?

    An alternate explanation, if I understand what you mean by that correctly, is that cops simply pay more attention to neighborhoods inhabited by blacks because there is more crime (of both the legitimate and illegitimate) there in general. This is different from saying that cops are out to arrest black pot smokers as a “weapon” against their community. Their community is simply under more intensive scrutiny, and thus black pot smokers are easier targets. If I’m right about that, then it’s no more an injustice to arrest a black pot smoker than a white pot smoker. The former is just in a more scrutinized, and thus less fortunate for him, circumstance. OTOH, the appearance of using the law as a means for prosecuting a race war (and I should point out that while I tend to think such motivation is unlikely to be the main explanation for the discrepancy being commented upon, it might very well exist in pockets, and in any event, I’m reduced by lack of data to speculation), is certainly cause for concern.

  15. Well, there certainly is a bait -n- switch around the drug war, where we are led to believe the problem is hard drugs, but a disproportionate amount of enforcement is around pot. That got me to wondering about an eighth amendment challenge.

    When the death penalty is debated, one of the eighth amendment issues is whether meting out death is disproportionate, and therefore unusual punishment. Unusual is viewed as proportionate to the crime, rather than common in occurance.

    It would seem with the prevalence of pot and pot smokers, any jail or forfeiture would seems “unusual” using the term that way.

  16. The race issue is a highly justified focal point given the history of the war on drugs. From the first San Francisco opium ordinance in the 1890s to the south’s marijuana crackdowns, drug demonization has been a tool for “dealing with” Chinese, Mexicans, blacks and other minorities.

    How have things changed since then? Not as much as people like to believe. The race war isn’t “openly prosecuted” as it once was perhaps. All that means is that it is no longer primarily the result of conscious deliberate motives on the part of those in power. Does that make it less real, insidious and damaging? Not really.

  17. I’m attempting not to discuss the racial disparities in drug law enforcement here, but to point out the problems in using more or less meaningless facts that do not speak to the true nature of the problem.

    I’m not disputing that there is a disproportionate enforcement effort in black and/or youth communities, I’m simply saying that that’s not what Sullum wrote in his original post. He wrote:

    * Marijuana possession and sales arrests disproportionately affect blacks and the young.

    That is not the same thing as saying that arrests in these subgroups are disproportionate to their representation in the marijuana-using community as a whole.

  18. As P.J. O’Rourke says, you can find the real message behind the Drug War by substituting the N-word for every appearance of the word “drugs” in policy statements.

  19. If I went to the DEA headquarters and started reading out loud from an Econ 101 textbook, how many heads would explode?

    “It is well known that when regulations artificially constrain the available quantity of a product the price will increase and people will turn to the black market…” (sound of heads exploding) This could be like the ending of the movie Mars Attacks.

    Better question: If I went to DEA headquarters wearing a suit and some official-looking ID tag, and announced that I was conducting random drug screens of all personnel, how many would flee?

  20. God, i need a bong hit.

  21. Here in BC, Canada, where as I understand it the most delightfully THC-rich weed is grown, the drug war is proceeding much like it is in the US. And to the best of my knowledge there is no race war going on.

    Why bring it up? Well, for one thing to point out that the racial motivations that may or may not be present in America (I don’t disbelieve it, by the way) don’t necessarily comprise all or even most of the motivation behind the drug war.

    Here one big concern is that if we legalize (which I think should be done, and I’m not a user) the US will suddenly become all the more miffed with us, making trade & travel more difficult, whether officially or unofficially, or both. That may be a portion of the motivation of our ‘drug war’, but it isn’t the main one.

    Lots of folks simply seem convinced that marijuana is wrong, and further, that it is a kind of wrong that the state should forbid.

    I disagree, and say that using it is no more wrong than consuming any other plant (including the hideous and foul parsnip) and the government should not be involved with it’s use, production, or sale any more than it is with parsnips.

  22. Poustman

    It is my impression (and purely that; thus easily refuted by other, sounder information if anyone has it), based on contacts with family in Canada, that the vaunted drug tolerance for which Canada is famous in the US is actually pretty much restricted to Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver and that the hinterland is still somewhat conservative (although married to the welfare state).

    In fact, looking online at the daily paper of the prairie city that was my onetime home, I was thinking that it could have just as well have been written in Bumfuck, Alabama.

  23. Extremism, in the defense of anti-drug hysteria, is no vice! Moderation, in the sentencing of victimless crimes, is no virtue!

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