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The war on marijuana: The transformation of the war on drugs in the 1990s

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Author(s): King Ryan | Mauer Marc

Journal: Harm Reduction Journal
ISSN 1477-7517

Volume: 3;
Issue: 1;
Start page: 6;
Date: 2006;
Original page

ABSTRACT
Abstract Background: As the "war on drugs" enters the latter half of its third decade since being forged into the American lexicon by President Ronald Reagan, the public has grown more skeptical of the current strategy and has proven to be receptive to a broader consideration of alternatives to incarceration. This has been the case most notably with marijuana offenses, where the policy discussion has shifted in some localities to one of decriminalization or de-prioritizing law enforcement resources dedicated to pursuing possession offenses. Despite the increased profile surrounding marijuana policy in recent years, there remains a significant degree of misunderstanding regarding the current strategy, both in terms of how resources are being allocated and to what eventual gain. Methods: Previous studies have analyzed drug offenses as a general category, but there has yet to be a single study that has focused specifically on marijuana offenders at all stages of the system. This report analyzes multiple sources of data for the period 1990–2002 from each of the critical points in the criminal justice system, from arrest through court processing and into the correctional system, to create an overall portrait of this country's strategy in dealing with marijuana use. Results: The study found that since 1990, the primary focus of the war on drugs has shifted to low-level marijuana offenses. During the study period, 82% of the increase in drug arrests nationally (450,000) was for marijuana offenses, and virtually all of that increase was in possession offenses. Of the nearly 700,000 arrests in 2002, 88% were for possession. Only 1 in 18 of these arrests results in a felony conviction, with the rest either being dismissed or adjudicated as a misdemeanor, meaning that a substantial amount of resources, roughly $4 billion per year for marijuana alone, is being dedicated to minor offenses. Conclusion: The results of this study suggest that law enforcement resources are not being effectively allocated to offenses which are most costly to society. The financial and personnel investment in marijuana offenses, at all points in the criminal justice system, diverts funds away from other crime types, thereby representing a questionable policy choice.
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