Thursday, December 20, 2012

Some Statistics on Marijuana Prohibition's Costs, Dangers, Restrictions and Popularity

In my original piece on marijuana legalization (which you can read here), I was confined by the length restraints of a newspaper editorial column. As such, I had to ramble off a bunch of arguments without actually providing the statistics that back them up. But I do have those statistics and sources, so I thought it warranted another post to provide them.
In the first section of that essay, I argued that marijuana legalization would be good for the economy and save us money. Here are some stats that back that up:
  • “State correctional spending has quadrupled in nominal terms in the last two decades and now totals $52 billion a year, consuming one out of 14 general fund dollars. Spending on corrections is the second fastest growth area of state budgets, following Medicaid. According to a 2009 report from the Pew Center on the States, keeping an inmate locked up costs an average of $78.95 per day.” – Quoted from Veronique de Rugy, economic analyst and writer for
  • “As of 2009, the annual cost of the war on drugs between state and local governments was over $40 billion.” - Jeffrey A. Miron & Kathrine Waldock: “The Budgetary Impact of Drug Prohibition” 2010.
  • All things considered,  a 2005 cost-benefit analysis done by Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron found that legalizing marijuana and taxing it similar to alcohol would generate over $6 billion in new revenue and save nearly $8 billion in direct law enforcement costs. Those figures would only be higher in today’s dollars. Admittedly, these savings won’t do much towards closing our massive deficits in the short term, but every little bit counts. And more importantly, they undercut alarmist predictions that legalization would impose rampant social costs greatly outweighing the benefits. It’s also important to note that this is just for marijuana; further decriminalization of harder drugs would likely save even more money.
  • This is also only for one use of marijuana; according to Doug Fine, author of Too High to Fail, the industrial uses for cannabis may one day dwarf the psychoactive ones. Cannabis can be fermented to produce energy, and is already a useful biofuel that some say may one day reduce our dependence on oil. Additionally, a distinct variety of the cannabis plant called hemp can be utilized in the making of textiles, paper, paints, clothing, plastics, construction, medicine, cordage, weed control, cosmetics, foodstuffs, insulation, animal feed and other products, all in an environmentally friendly, carbon neutral way. And yet even hemp, which contains less than 1% THC and is not psychoactive, remains illegal at the federal level in the United States.
Next I argued that legalizing marijuana would make us safer. Here are some sources that back that up:
·         The Federal Office of National Drug Control Policy states that “marijuana…now earns cartels about $8.5 billion, or about 61 percent of their annual estimated income of $13.8 billion.” Naturally, if legalized, these profits would go away.
·         “No one knows exactly how much money Mexican traffickers make, but reasonable estimates find they pocket $30 billion every year selling cocaine, marijuana, heroin and crystal meth to American users…nobody knows exactly how much the whole Mexico-U.S. marijuana trade is worth, with estimates ranging from $2 billion to $20 billion annually. But even if you believe the lowest numbers, legal marijuana would take billions of dollars a year away from organized crime. This would inflict more financial damage than soldiers or drug agents have managed in years and substantially weaken cartels.”-  Ioan Grillo, The New York Times, November 1st, 2012
·         “The criminal prohibition of marijuana fuels an underground, unregulated, black market economy that empowers criminal entrepreneurs and jeopardizes the public’s — and the marijuana consumer’s — safety.” – NORML website
·         “Housing nonviolent, victimless offenders with violent criminals for years on end can’t possibly help them reintegrate into society, which helps explain why four out of 10 released prisoners end up back in jail within three years of their release. As the Harvard sociologist Bruce Western and the University of Washington sociologist Becky Pettit showed in a 2010 study published by the Pew Center on the States, incarceration has a lasting impact on men’s earnings. Taking age, education, school enrollment, and geography into account, they found that past incarceration reduced subsequent wages by 11 percent, cut annual employment by nine weeks, and reduced yearly earnings by 40 percent. Only 2 percent of previously incarcerated men who started in the bottom fifth of the earnings distribution made it to the top fifth 20 years later, compared to 15 percent of never-incarcerated men who started at the bottom. It isn’t just offenders whose lives are damaged. Western and Pettit note that 54 percent of inmates are parents with minor children, including more than 120,000 mothers and 1.1 million fathers. One in every 28 children has a parent incarcerated, up from 1 in 125 just 25 years ago. Two-thirds of these children’s parents were incarcerated for nonviolent offenses. While we don’t yet have data on the income mobility of these children, Rucker C. Johnson of the Goldman School of Public Policy found in 2009 that children whose fathers have been incarcerated are significantly more likely than their peers to be expelled or suspended from school (23 percent compared to 4 percent). Johnson found that family income, averaged over the years a father is incarcerated, is 22 percent lower than family income the year before his incarceration. Even in the year after the father is released, family income remains 15 percent lower than it was the year before incarceration. Both education and parental income are strong indicators of a child’s future economic mobility.” – Quoted from Veronique de Rugy, economic analyst and contributor to

Finally, I argued that marijuana legalization would make people freer. Although this is obviously true just in the intuitive sense, I do have some stats demonstrating the extent of marijuana incarceration:
  • The “land of the free” imprisons more people, both in total and per capita, than any other nation on earth. 30-40% of these people are in jail for crimes with no obvious or direct victim besides the perpetrator”, with drugs representing the overwhelming majority of such cases…In 2009, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there were 1,524,513 prisoners in state and federal prisons. When local jails are included, the total climbs to 2,284,913. These numbers are not just staggering; they are far above those of any other liberal democracy in both absolute and per capita terms.” – de Rugy
  • “Of those 1.5 million in state and federal prison, over 12% are in for marijuana offenses (as of 2004). Police arrested an estimated 858,408 persons for cannabis violations in 2009. Of those… approximately 89 percent were charged with possession only. An American is arrested for violating cannabis laws every 30 seconds.” - Uniform Crime Reports, Federal Bureau of Investigation.
  • This has the added benefit of reducing the huge problem of prison overcrowding: with over 7 million people under correctional authority, America makes up ¼ of the world’s prisoners. And as Matt Welch of Reason Magazine notes, “most prisons are overcrowded, underserviced, and exponentially more dangerous than any decent society should tolerate.”
  • Additionally, “black women in America’s inner cities have some of the highest HIV infection rates in the developed world. Why? Because their male partners contracted the virus behind bars, via consensual sex or rape, often going undiagnosed while serving out their terms.” – Welch.
  • The Berkeley linguistics professor and Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute says that the “massive number of black men in prison” due to the war on drugs is the main contributor to "the strained relationship between young black men and police forces… if the War on Drugs were terminated, the main factor keeping race-based resentment a core element in the American social fabric would no longer exist. America would be a better place for all….Because the illegality of drugs keeps the prices high," he says, "there are high salaries to be made in selling them. This makes selling drugs a standing tempting alternative to seeking lower-paying legal employment." – quoted from John Stossel article
  • And whether you’re an inmate or not, the practical detriments to freedom from the drug war are far reaching. “We can thank the drug war for “stop-and-frisk” harassment of young New Yorkers, for the transfer of military equipment and tactics to local police departments, for wrong-door SWAT raids that kill innocents, for an entire shadow economy of dubious jailhouse snitching and back-room sentence reductions.” - Welch

  • It’s not like we’re not doing it anyway. Even though pot remains illegal at the federal level:
    • “More than three million people started smoking it regularly in the past five years, and the rate of high-school experimentation is at a 30-year high. One in 15 high school seniors are smoking daily or near daily. And when a kid first lights up at about age 16, it’s usually not with a cigarette.” – The Daily Beast.
    • “close to half of all Americans by now have smoked it, and more than half, by some surveys, favor legalizing it…Nor has prohibition been particularly effective at preventing people its use. From 2002-2009, federal funding to enforcing the drug war increased 39%, and yet in 2009 illegal drug use reached it’s highest level since 2002, a 9% increase from the previous year alone.” - Welch

With such a diverse array of common sense benefits, it seems only natural that a majority of Americans now support marijuana legalization:
  • In October 2011, Gallup reported that 50 percent of Americans favor the legalization of marijuana, 2010 poll had it at 52%). Their support makes it all the more startling that neither major party has been willing to even consider the idea.
  • "The war on drugs has failed. It is diverting intelligent energy away from how to deal with the problem of addiction…It is wasting our resources, and…it is encouraging civil, judicial, and penal procedures associated with police states. We [here at NR] all agree on movement toward legalization” - editors of National Review in 1996.


  1. I wish I had something intelligent to add, but this is perfectly explained. However, I would like to ask:
    How do you feel about the governments control over products such as marijuana? (Ex: tax rates, age limit, etc.)
    I realize that there is precedent for this all over the place, but I have a strong feeling you appreciate the free-market with no government interference.

    1. You're correct: I don't think there should be any more control over marijuana than there is over any other product. That said, I'd happily trade legalization for a high tax and an age limit of 21 and over, which is what Washington and Colorado did recently.