While the number of people who go to prison for marijuana possession is quite small (and make up a very small fraction of prisoners), it’s worth noting that the number of arrests for possession, if New York City is any guide (and it might not be), is quite high (pun intended; boldface mine):
According to state figures, arrests for marijuana account for roughly 10 percent of all arrests — which is more than for serious felonies. Last year, 49,800 people were arrested on marijuana-related charges, compared to 39,758 arrests for serious crimes.
The good news is that ten percent of these arrests are dropped, and another thirty percent result in a six month probation, after which (provided no further run-ins with the law, which in certain neighborhoods are not infrequent) the arrest is expunged from your record. But that’s still a lot of people who wind up with possession records. That’s the kind of thing employers often see if they do a background check, so it can hurt future employment opportunities (and, in NYC, minorities are far more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession). And someone who then winds up in the criminal justice system for some other minor offense already has one strike against him. Essentially, we’re fast-tracking young minority men to nowhere.
I’m not naive about this: some are low level dealers, either for money or to support habitats of their own. I’m also not a denialist–marijuana can be addictive; jokes aside, it’s not a magic weed. Hell, it can even lead to environmental pollution. But the question is are we better off with or without criminalization? Former police officers Peter Moskos and Neill Franklin:
Cities and states license beer and tobacco sellers to control where, when and to whom drugs are sold. Ending Prohibition saved lives because it took gangsters out of the game. Regulated alcohol doesn’t work perfectly, but it works well enough. Prescription drugs are regulated, and while there is a huge problem with abuse, at least a system of distribution involving doctors and pharmacists works without violence and high-volume incarceration. Regulating drugs would work similarly: not a cure-all, but a vast improvement on the status quo….
Drug manufacturing and distribution is too dangerous to remain in the hands of unregulated criminals. Drug distribution needs to be the combined responsibility of doctors, the government, and a legal and regulated free market. This simple step would quickly eliminate the greatest threat of violence: street-corner drug dealing.
Unlike Moskos and Franklin, I’m on the fence about legalization, especially for ‘harder’ drugs: regular readers will know I’m not a stoner who just doesn’t have the guts to admit it. In fact, I’ve been criticized as a Drug War apologist (?!?). But the costs of criminalization, and even perhaps outlawing recreational drugs, are too great and are manufacturing future criminals.