During the 1980's mandatory/minimum sentences for distribution
of schedule I drugs, including marijuana, were reinstated
by the Congress.
Most drug possession offenses end up in the local courts,
primarily county or city courts. However, the volume of drug
cases in the federal courts has been increasing, and this
increases the economic costs to the criminal justice system
produced by marijuana's schedule I status. This scheduling
status requires that state and local authorities give marijuana
use, sale, and cultivation equal enforcement status with other
schedule I and II drugs, such as heroin and cocaine. At the
federal level the significance of devoting resources to the
ongoing prosecution of marijuana-related offenses amidst increasing
demands on the criminal justice system must be rationally
addressed by the executive branch in accordance with this
aspect of the legislative history of the Controlled Substances
Drug cases not only consume resources, they also divert
them. For example, the federal courts must give preferential
scheduling to criminal over civil cases. Consequently, the
increasing caseload of drug filings inhibits, if not paralyzes,
the courts' ability to handle civil matters in anything resembling
a timely fashion.
While there is much to study about the effect on the
courts of drug cases in general, the savings attributed to
decriminalizing marijuana possession cases in California has
been studied. A history of California's marijuana laws and
its enactment of decriminalization notes what prompted consideration
of this now longstanding policy.
"As California entered the 1970's, it was clear that
marijuana law enforcement had become an immense legal and
social problem in the state. For the first time, policymakers
began to seriously question the underpinnings of the prohibition-based
public policy toward marijuana."(28)
The following data was compiled in a successful attempt
to preserve California's policy of issuing a fine of $100
for marijuana possession. (29)(30)
In 1974 one fourth of all the adult felony arrests in
California were for marijuana. Huge jumps in the number of
felony marijuana arrests since the mid-1960's caused a logjam
of felony marijuana cases in the courts, over 38,000 in 1975.
In 1969 the legislature responded to the increasing case loads
by throwing marijuana cases into the lower courts, then as
they filled up in the 1970's they tried to ease the pressure
with programs to divert offenders into treatment programs.
Rather than decriminalize completely, the Moscone Act (creating
a $100 fine for possession of one ounce or less) kept marijuana
as a criminal offense but out of the courts. The number of
marijuana cases were down to less than 8000 in 1978.
In 1985, 40,761 citations were issued in California,
producing over $4 million in fines. It would have cost $2875
each to arrest and try those offenders. It is estimated that
the Moscone Act has saved California $100 million annually
since it's enactment.
These are the estimated savings for the period 1976 -
1985: $464 million in arrest costs, $441 million in court
costs, $38 million in prison costs, and $14 million in parole
A proposal to recriminalize marijuana in California
by providing an alternative six month prison sentence and/or
a $500 fine would have increased court costs six times what
they were for California in 1985 when the proposal was made.
These figures illustrate the burden marijuana's present
restrictive scheduling places on the criminal justice systems
of individual states. All states must enforce marijuana cultivation