Arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana constitute one of the most common drug-related points of entry into the criminal justice system. In 2007 the Department of Justice reported that there were 1,841,182 drug arrests in the United States; the report noted that there were more drug abuse arrests than any other category of offenses. Marijuana arrests accounted for 47.4% of the drug abuse arrests. This allows us to estimate that about 872,720 persons were arrested for marijuana offenses. Eighty-nine percent of these arrests were for possession.
Eliminating penalties for low-level marijuana possession will prevent tens of thousands of people from becoming enmeshed in the criminal justice system in the first instance. Decriminalization will have the added effect of keeping people out of jail for probation and parole violations, and will eliminate the many collateral consequences that flow from marijuana arrests, thereby reducing the gross number of people entering or otherwise harmed by the criminal justice system.
Drug prohibition has largely driven America’s incarceration rate to unacceptable levels. Drug offenders comprise over 500,000 of the more than 2 million people in our nation’s prisons and jails, and drug offenses and failed drug tests account for a significant number of those returning to prison for parole and probation violations. Most of those incarcerated for marijuana offenses do not belong in prison, as they represent little or no risk to public safety. Removing criminal penalties for marijuana offenses will therefore reduce the U.S. prison population and more effectively protect the public and promote public health.