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The High Cost of Prohibition

Washington State has spent $300 million for marijuana arrests. Solstice prepares your ‘high’ crimes financial cheat sheet.

It’s been a year since Washington voted to legalize recreational marijuana, and since that time, the nascent pot industry has had an electrifying effect on the collective ‘financial imagination’ of the US. The allure of a potential economic boon is not unfounded. Washington has been pinning its hopes on Colorado’s numbers – a staggering $184 million from tax revenues for 2014 alone. Despite supply shortages and legal roadblocks, enterprising Washington State ganga-preneurs are expected to add $25 million to the state’s coffers by mid-2015.

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Michelle Alexander author of “The New Jim Crow.”

It would seem that marijuana legalization, given the recent sweeping pro-pot initiatives approved in Oregon, Alaska, and Washington D.C, is at this point a runaway train. However, in keeping with our November ‘Money’ theme, (and at the risk of preaching to the pro-cannabis choir) we thought we’d take a good hard look at what prohibition has cost Washington State thus far, and what it continues to cost our country as a whole.

The numbers we present were culled from The Marijuana Arrest Project, the Vera Institute for JusticeNORML, and the Global Commission of Drug Policies. They reveal not only a nation-wide hemorrhaging of tax dollars into small possession charges, but a clear link between America’s War on Drugs, and the greater prison industrial complex – a system that disproportionately impacts (and targets) low income groups and people of color, namely African Americans and Latinos.

Michelle Alexander, associate professor of law at Ohio State University and author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindnesshas addressed the marked disparity between those who are making “big money” on legal cannabis today – largely white men – and the number of African American men and boys still incarcerated for marijuana possession charges across the US. In a public talk with Asha Bandele of the Drug Policy Alliance, Alexander recommended that a reparations process – similar to that of post-apartheid South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, should be instituted to reflect on past mistakes and make amends.

“We see politicians across the spectrum raising concerns […] about the size of our prison state,” said Alexander, “And yet I worry that the dialogue is driven by financial concerns rather than genuine concern for the communities most impacted, and the families destroyed.”

And while it might be argued that some members of more ‘privileged’ classes have used their resources to fight for legislation that would make cannabis safe and legal for everyone, Alexander states that a true transformation would require a recognition of deep-rooted race and class issues – essentially taking two steps back to make a substantial leap forward.

Without a conscious dialogue about the destruction caused by the drug war, Alexander noted, “Some new system of racial and social control will emerge again, because we have not learned the core lesson that our history is trying to teach us.”

Here are a few Washington-centric numbers (and a few national ones for good measure) of what writer and activists Diane Fornbacher recently called “A hungry monster” – America’s War on Drugs:

United States:

  • The Obama administration’s 2013 budget request for federal spending on the drug war: $25.6 billion
  • Drug Policy Alliance estimate of state and local spending on drug-related arrests and prison: $51 billion per year.  Total spent by American taxpayers over four decades on the drug war: $1 trillion.
  • The net result of those $1 trillion: Zero change in drug addiction rates, and the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world: 2.2 million Americans in jail.
  • Of that number, more than half in 2010 were convicted of drug crimes according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
  • In 2007, the total number of drug-related arrests was 1,841,182. Marijuana arrests accounted for 47% of that number. That nets out to 900,000 people arrested for marijuana related offenses, 89% of which were for a charge of small possession.
  • Drug enforcement laws disproportionately affect people of color. African Americans make up 50 percent of state and local prisoners charged with drug crimes, though they only comprise 15% of the entire US population. African American teenagers and kids are 10 times more likely to be arrested for drug crimes even though US Health surveys consistently show that white kids are more likely to abuse drugs.
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Washington:

  • Washington Department of Corrections prison budget: $684.6 Million.
  • Total Cost of State Prisons: $799.6 Million
  • Average annual cost per inmate: $46,897
  • Marijuana possession arrests in Washington State spiked dramatically over the past 25 years: 4,000 per year in 1986 to 11,000 per year in 2010, totaling 240,000 arrests.
  • Police in Washington arrested African Americans at 2.9 times the rate of whites, and they arrested Latinos and Native Americans at 1.6 times the rate of whites, even though young African Americans and Latinos use cannabis at lower rates than young whites.
  • Though analysts acknowledge wide spread prejudice, they see little evidence of overt racial targeting by police. However, it is evident that police are often “deployed in areas considered high crime or crime prone, usually low-income, and some with higher numbers of Latinos and African Americans.” (Marijuana Arrest Project.) There are more patrols, more stop and search – aimed at finding ‘contraband’ to make an arrest.
  • Police have “formal and informal quotas” (MAP) for arrests and police will sometimes “fish” for arrests in low income areas.
  • While there is no tangible evidence of a racial bias in terms of who gets pulled over, or stopped – there is some bias evident in terms of who will get searched – a procedure that is at the discretion of the police officer.
  • Conservative estimate of the cost of a single arrest for possession: $1000 – $2000. (MAPS) Here’s the 2012 breakdown of costs of marijuana arrests (averaged over a 10 year period) from the ACLU, which drew it’s numbers from a report generated by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy:
    • $650 in police costs
    • $288 court
    • $551 in prosecutor costs
    • $571 in defense
    • $58 in jail
  • Average: $2118 per arrest
  • The 129,000 marijuana possession arrests since 2001 cost taxpayers $200 million. The 240,000 arrests since 1986 cost $300 million or more.
  • Fingerprints and personal data from those arrested, handcuffed, and fingerprinted are sent to the FBI – records that are never returned or purged.
  • Maximum penalty of a small possessions charge (to which people often plead guilty): 90 days in jail and $1,000 fine. Minimum charge: $250 and 24 hours in prison.
  • Fees incurred (fines, lawyers, bail, court costs) by the individual arrested: upward of $5,000
  • Human cost: misdemeanor arrests and conviction records are now readily available online and can be researched by banks, employers, credit agencies, landlords, licensing boards, and colleges – entities that often hold a negative view of such charges.
  • Evidence of correlation between small cannabis possession charges and an “overall reduction in serious or violent crime”: None