Parents hope the threat of arrest will steer their kids clear of a run-in with the law. A new report, however, shows that nationally, marijuana use does not go down as marijuana possession arrests go up.
In "Marijuana Arrests in the United States in 2007," a study funded by the Washington-based Marijuana Policy Project, Dr. Jon Gettman concludes that "nationally, there is little apparent relationship between increasing marijuana arrests and the rates of use."
U.S. marijuana arrests jumped from 287,850 in 1991 to 872,720 in 2007. People reporting marijuana use in the past year also rose, from 19.2 million to 25.2 million.
Turning to New Jersey, the study addresses marijuana use, the cost of arrests and the effectiveness of arrests as a drug control means.
Marijuana possession arrests made by state and local police in New Jersey went from 19,413 in 1999 to 20,188 in 2007. Persons ages 15-24 accounted for 69 percent of those charged with marijuana possession in 2007.
Gettman estimates that marijuana possession arrests in 2006 cost New Jersey taxpayers about $352.6 million -- $16,000 per arrest. Tough-on-crime advocates use marijuana arrests as a back door way to fill drug treatment programs. In 2007, New Jersey's criminal justice system sent more than 4,616 persons to drug treatment programs -- often as an alternative to avoid more severe punishments. Drug treatment programs make sense, but not if the arrest cost to round up customers tops $16,000 each.
Using arrests to coerce young people into treatment programs is questionable. Statistics indicate that most young people arrested for marijuana use will simply quit using the drug on their own -- without the threat of arrest -- as they mature, start careers, get married, etc. In New Jersey, in 2007, only 6 percent of the population 26 and older were annual marijuana users.
Why do so many young people use marijuana? The study finds that, in spite of its illegal status, "Most teenagers say marijuana is easy to obtain. One of the reasons marijuana remains easy for youths to obtain is the profit incentive created by the illegal market.
Simply, teens make money by selling marijuana to other youths, which increases the availability of marijuana among teens. In this way, marijuana's illegality makes it more widely and readily available to teenagers."
It appears that arresting young people for experimenting with marijuana as they pass through an exploration-filled stage of life is largely pointless and very costly. Instead of arrests, the passage of time, at no cost to the state, is a more effective way to limit drug use.
The purpose of law enforcement is to keep us safe. Instead of spending hundreds of millions of dollars each year arresting young people for possessing small amount of marijuana, New Jersey might use the freed-up money and manpower to work on unsolved violent crimes.
Take a look at this data-rich report. It is available online at www.drugscience.org.
By Ronald Fraser
February 14, 2010