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Why waste time with marijuana offenses?

Thousands of Nevada parents are hoping that the threat of arrest will steer their kids clear of a run-in with the law. A new report, however, shows that nationally marijuana use does not go down as marijuana possession arrests go up.

In a study funded by the Washington-based Marijuana Policy Project, Jon Gettman, adjunct assistant professor of criminal justice at Shenandoah University in Winchester, Va., concludes that, “Nationally, there is little apparent relationship between increasing marijuana arrests and the rates of use.”

U.S. marijuana arrests jumped from 287,850 in 1991 to 872,720 in 2007. During the same period people reporting marijuana use within the past year also went up, from 19.2 million to 25.2 million.

Turning to Nevada, the study addresses marijuana use, the cost of arrests and the effectiveness of arrests as a drug use control strategy.

— Marijuana use: Marijuana possession arrests made by state and local police in Nevada went up from 5,271 in 1999, to 7,201 in 2007 while, in the same period, past-month marijuana users also increased from 83,000 to 125,000. Persons ages 15-24 accounted for 51 percent of those charged with marijuana possession in 2007.

— Enforcement costs: Gettman estimates that marijuana possession arrests in 2006 cost Nevada’s taxpayers about $77 million, or about $11,500 per arrest. At this price, if marijuana possession arrests do not cut drug use, why do they continue to go up?

In part, tough-on-crime advocates use marijuana arrests as a back-door way to fill drug treatment programs. In 2007, Nevada’s criminal justice system sent more than 1,145 persons to drug treatment programs — often as an alternative to avoid more severe punishments. Drug treatment and education programs make sense, but not if the up-front arrest cost to round up customers tops $11,500 each.

— Maturity outperforms arrests: Using arrests to coerce young people into treatment programs is questionable from yet another perspective. Statistics indicate that the vast majority of the young persons arrested for marijuana use will simply quit using the drug on their own — without the threat of arrest — as they mature, start careers, get married and take on other responsibilities.

In Nevada, in 2007, only 8 percent of the population aged 26 and older were annual marijuana users, whereas the percentages for users ages 12-17 and 18-25 were 14 percent and 25 percent respectively.

Regarding why so many young people use marijuana, the study finds that in spite of its illegal status, “Most teenagers say marijuana is fairly easy to obtain. One of the reasons marijuana remains easy for youths to obtain is the profit incentive created by the illegal market. Simply put, teenagers make money by selling marijuana to other youths, which increases the availability of marijuana among teens.

In this way, marijuana’s illegality makes it more widely and readily available to teenagers.”

It appears that arrests of young people for experimenting with marijuana as they pass through an exploration-filled stage of their life is largely pointless, and very costly.

Instead of arrests, the passage of time, at no cost to the state, is a more effective drug use control strategy.

What to do? The purpose of law enforcement is to keep us safe. Instead of spending millions of dollars each year arresting young people for possessing small amounts of marijuana, Nevada might use the freed-up money and manpower to work on unsolved violent crimes. In Nevada, only 68 percent of all murders, 21 percent of all rapes and 22 percent of all robberies result in an arrest. With so many serious crimes going unsolved, only inertia can explain why every day in Nevada, 19 more people are charged with possession of marijuana.

Ronald Fraser (fraserr@erols.com) writes on public policy issues for the DKT Liberty Project, a Washington-based civil liberties organization.

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