Amendment 64: Debating the costs of marijuana prohibition in Colorado

By Scot Kersgaard
The Colorado IndependentSeptember 27, 2012
There is no question that keeping marijuana illegal comes at a price. There are no easy answers when it comes to how high that price is, though.

A study conducted by the Colorado Center on Law and Policy estimated that police forces in Colorado spend about 4.4 percent of their budgets enforcing marijuana prohibition, that the judicial system spends 7 percent on marijuana cases, and that 2 percent of the corrections budget also is spent on marijuana-related incarcerations.

The study notes that the cost to taxpayers won’t fall by those percentages immediately, as no police officers are likely to be laid off as a result of the possible passage of Amendment 64 on Nov. 6. The study concludes that in the beginning at least, relatively modest savings will be realized from the marginal cost reduction associated with not making arrests, not prosecuting new cases and not imprisoning people newly convicted of marijuana charges. The study was commissioned by the pro-legalization Drug Policy Alliance.

Denver Lt. Tony Ryan (Ret.) speaks at a recent rally.
The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol.

Economist Chris Stiffler, who wrote the CCLP report, told the Colorado Independent that his best estimate is that 5 percent to 6 percent of all arrests in Colorado are marijuana related. All told, the study concludes that legalizing small amounts of marijuana will save Colorado taxpayers $12 million a year in the beginning and up to $40 million a year in later years.

Then there is the human cost. No comprehensive statistics are available on the number of people serving time in Colorado’s county jails because of marijuana. Nationally, marijuana possession accounts for nearly half of all drug arrests, at well more than 500,000 a year.

Tom Gorman, head of the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a federal program to help coordinate regional drug interdiction efforts, said that police officers don't go out looking to make marijuana possession arrests. "Are you kidding?" he said. "The only time someone is arrested for possession (of small amounts) is when the police see it as part of some other activity-- someone is stopped for speeding or police are investigating a disturbance."

Possession of up to two ounces of marijuana in Colorado is now a Class Two petty offense, punishable by a fine of up to $100 and up to 15 days in jail. If 64 passes, the first ounce would be legal, but possession of one to two ounces would remain a petty offense. If 64 passes, growing up to six plants for personal use would become legal. Currently growing even one plant is a class one misdemeanor, which comes with a fine of up to $5000 and a jail sentence of up to 18 months.

Under state law, someone growing seven plants today is subject to fines of up to $100,000 and a prison term of up to three years. That will not change if 64 passes.

The difference between state and federal law on the subject of cultivation will become stark if 64 passes. Federal law counts possession of even one plant as a felony, punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.

A spokesperson for the DEA told the Colorado Independent that in spite of the law, the agency does not currently take much interest in people growing a few plants for personal use and that the agency will continue to focus primarily on large scale trafficking regardless of whether 64 passes.

Laws against the possession of large amounts and against selling or intending to sell will remain unchanged except that a business could get a license to cultivate large amounts and/or to sell marijuana legally through a retail operation that is taxed and regulated.

Proponents of Amendment 64 say that, although possessing large amounts of marijuana and selling marijuana without a business license will remain illegal and continue to carry hefty penalties, such crimes will become very rare, just as bootlegging and underground alcohol sales have mostly become a thing of the past.

Opponents, though, say 64 will usher in a new category of crime, as people from other states and even other countries will come to Colorado to buy marijuana and then take it out of state to be resold illegally.

According to the Colorado Department of Corrections, there are few people in state prison because of marijuana charges. In 2011, 63 people received prison time for marijuana crimes, which is just over 1 percent of the 6070 people committed.

All told, 162 people served prison time in Colorado in 2011 for marijuana related crimes, which is less than 1 percent of the 22,380 people who spent time in prison in 2011. These statistics include only those people for whom a marijuana charge was their most serious offense. The official statistics do not differentiate between people charged with possession and those charged with dealing, but people serving time for simple possession of small amounts of marijuana are likely to be held in county jails as opposed to state prisons.

Attorney Brian Vicente, co-director of the pro-64 campaign, says 10,000 to 12,000 people are arrested each year in Colorado on marijuana charges, with most of those being for simple possession. Statistics published by the FBI show 15,294 drug arrests in Colorado in 2010, but do not specify how many of those were marijuana related. That same year, 1,490 people were sentenced to Colorado state prisons on drug charges.

Statistics compiled by the state show that in 2006, marijuana accounted for only 18 percent of drug arrests in the state. Methamphetamine led the way, accounting for 56 percent of drug arrests; cocaine accounted for 25 percent. According to the study’s lead author, though, the data does not include cases from Denver County or any misdemeanor cases. In other words, it does not include cases involving possession of two ounces or less of marijuana. The numbers also do not include juvenile arrests.

According to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, arrests for drug crimes have been on a pretty steady upward slant. In 1980, 580,900 Americans were arrested on drug charges. In 2007 (the last year for which data is available), more than 1.84 million were arrested. According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, more than 1.6 million people were arrested on drug charges in the U.S. in 2010. Marijuana possession accounts for far more arrests than any other category of drug crime, according to the FBI website.

Nationally, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, marijuana arrests constitute just under half of all drug arrests, and more than 80 percent of all drug arrests are for possession. In 2007, according to the Bureau’s website, 13 percent of all arrests in the U.S. were for drug charges. Statistics going back to 1982 show 455,600 marijuana arrests that year. Arrests fell steadily until 1991 when 287,900 were arrested on marijuana charges. The number of marijuana arrests then began climbing until 2007, the last year reported, when 872,700 people were arrested in the U.S. on marijuana charges.

According to Human Rights Watch, in 2000, 22 percent of state and federal prisoners were serving time for drug charges.

The fact that marijuana arrests are a smaller percentage of drug arrests in Colorado than nationally could be due to a number of factors, the most likely of which is that Colorado has already legalized marijuana for medical purposes and also has relatively liberal marijuana laws, where possession of small amounts is a misdemeanor.

Drug defense attorney Rob Corry said he has no idea how many people are in jail or prison in Colorado because of marijuana charges, but said he thought it was in the thousands. “No one keeps those statistics. The only way you would be able to figure that out is to go through every inmate’s files to see what they are in for.”

Chris Olson, spokesperson for the County Sheriffs of Colorado, agreed with Corry. He said there are no statistics available for the number of people serving time on marijuana-related charges in Colorado county jails.

Gorman said that regardless of how many people are in jail or prison in Colorado on marijuana charges, things are not always what they seem. Many of those people, he says, would have plead down from other charges, so that someone serving time for possession may have originally been charged with conspiracy to distribute or some other more serious crime.

Corry said there are a lot of people in jail because they tested positive for marijuana while on probation. “The underlying charge might not be marijuana, but marijuana is why they are incarcerated.”

Vicente said the amendment does not address the issue of people on probation using marijuana. “Alcohol is legal, but it can still be banned as part of someone’s probation. The same will be true of marijuana, but while testing positive for marijuana might violate someone’s probation, it wouldn’t be a criminal offense, and that is progress.”

In Colorado, if Amendment 64 passes, it will remain illegal for individuals to sell marijuana. Sales will be allowed only by licensed businesses. Vicente says he expects illegal sales to become a thing of the past. “Why would you go the park to buy marijuana illegally when you can go to a regulated store and buy it legally. There really is no black market for alcohol, and if marijuana is legal, there will be no black market for that either,” he said.

Olson, of the County Sheriffs association, disagreed. He said that some of the marijuana purchased legally by adults in Colorado will find its way into the black market. He said adults would be able to buy as much marijuana as they want, regardless of the one ounce limit, simply by visiting multiple outlets or even by making multiple purchases at a single outlet. They could then sell marijuana illegally to people under the age of 21 or could take the marijuana out of state to resell it illegally. “We don’t want Colorado to be the ‘go-to place’ in the world for marijuana,” he said by phone.

“We would have the most liberal marijuana laws in the world. People would be flooding into Colorado to buy marijuana. It’s just crazy. No one knows what will happen,” Olson said.

Vicente scoffed at the notion that legalizing small amounts of marijuana will fuel the illegal trade.

"It will be illegal for adults to possess more than one ounce of marijuana after the passage of Amendment 64, so anyone who possesses more or attempts to bring marijuana across state lines will be subject to criminal prosecution,” he said by email. “Additionally, police will have expanded resources to focus on these law violations, since they will no longer be arresting 10,000-plus Coloradans annually for marijuana possession."

Retired Denver police officer Lt. Tony Ryan, now an outspoken member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), spoke with reporters in September on a conference call. “Law enforcement officers know better than anyone that keeping marijuana illegal and unregulated means the gangs and cartels that control the illegal trade win, and the rest of us lose,” he said in a prepared statement emailed to the press before the call. “Our current marijuana laws distract police officers from doing the job we signed up for-- protecting the public by stopping and solving serious crimes. They also put us at risk by forcing us to deal with an underground marijuana market made up of gangsters, cartels and other criminals.”

In an interview with The Colorado Independent last year, Ryan said current drug laws put police officers at risk on a daily basis, as they never know when they will cross paths with someone involved in the illegal drug trade. He also noted that the drug laws lead to corruption, as police officers are offered bribes to stay out of the way of the drug business. Just as bad, he said, virtually every law enforcement agency in the country gets federal grants for drug enforcement work and departments have become “addicted” to the money and don’t want to lose it.

Neill Franklin, a former narcotics officer in Baltimore and now the executive director of LEAP, agreed with Ryan that current drug laws put police in danger. He said prohibition has “driven a wedge” between police and the communities they serve, especially communities of color where, he said, police are not respected or trusted. He said that in many neighborhoods people are afraid to report more serious crimes for fear that they will come under investigation for drug crimes.

Anthony Miranda, chairman of the National Latino Officers’ Association, echoed Franklin’s comments in a prepared statement released Sept. 20.

“Right now, communities of color see the police as aggressors rather than as protectors. People are unwilling to come to us, to give us information, even to report crimes, because they see us as the enemy,” he wrote.

Franklin said drug raids are very dangerous for police as well as for innocent people who may be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Additionally, he said, many police officers have been killed when working under cover to make drug buys.

comments: 1 Comment on "Amendment 64: Debating the costs of marijuana prohibition in Colorado"

jway – Sept. 27, 2012, at 11:10 a.m.

American taxpayers are being forced to pay $40 Billion a year for a prohibition that causes 10,000 brutal murders & 800,000 needless arrests each year, but which doesn't even stop CHILDREN getting marijuana.

After seventy years of prohibition, it's obvious that the federal marijuana prohibition causes FAR more harm than good and must END! Drug Dealers Don't Card, Supermarkets Do.

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