Reasonable minds may differ on the necessity of the drug war and the tactics used to fight it, but one thing is certain: it costs a heck of a lot of money. Some states are taking steps to spend their money wisely. One of these steps is de-criminalizing the possession of less than an ounce of marijuana. Massachusetts has already done so and Connecticut is considering following suit. Efforts to do so have failed in California, but the movement to ease the burden on our courts by removing small-time cases from the docket is gaining momentum.
How much could be saved? According to statistics compiled by LegalMatch, in 2007 44% of LegalMatch clients arrested for drug crimes were marijuana related. Federal statistics for the same period show that that 47% of all drug arrests were for marijuana possession. Nationally this works out to 775,137 marijuana possession arrests, or almost 10 times the amount of arrests for drug trafficking and sales.
Reducing the burden on our courts by shifting almost 3 quarters of a million defendants off the criminal docket could save a lot of money. Court costs for even the smallest of cases can still add up. A study of average court costs in Allen County, Indiana in 2001 show an average bill of $1,146 for processing drug offense charges. Factoring in inflation, this adds up to $1,345 in 2007 dollars. If we use this estimate for a national average (which seems on the low side as it is), that’s still over $1 billion spent simply processing marijuana possession offenses. That is not even taking into account the costs of other programs such as probation and incarceration.
Massachusetts estimates that it saves over $30 million a year by decriminalizing possession of less than an ounce of marijuana. How much can the nation as a whole save by following suit? Probably a few billion dollars. Although that may seem like chump change in the face of an $800 billion stimulus packages, that is still a lot of money that would be better spent elsewhere. In these tough economic times, we need to look everywhere we can to shed the extra fat. So let’s support a more rational criminal justice policy. It might just save you some money.