Marijuana Arrests & Punishments

Document Date: October 15, 2001

Marijuana Arrests & Punishments


Marijuana has been prohibited since the passage of the Marijuana Stamp Act in 1937. The ACLU has opposed marijuana prohibition since 1968. We believe that it is wrong in principle for the government to criminalize what we do to ourselves – to our own bodies – in private. The government should be no more able to criminalize smoking a joint than it is able to prohibit an individual from drinking a martini or eating too many fatty foods. [also see “Why Marijuana Law Reform Should Matter to You, by Ira Glasser]

In addition to stepping on the rights of individuals to make choices concerning their own bodies and private behavior, marijuana prohibition and the policies surrounding it result in a series of other civil liberties violations, including threatened rights to free speech and protection from illegal searches and seizure. Such policies also crowd American prisons past the capacity point with non-violent, otherwise law-abiding marijuana offenders. Moreover, marijuana prohibition does not keep marijuana out of young hands: in a recent federal survey of high school seniors, 85% said it would be “easy” for them to obtain marijuana. Marijuana is the country’s third most popular drug, after alcohol and tobacco (both legal drugs). According to federal surveys, 70 million Americans have used marijuana, and 17 million are using it on a monthly basis now.

Source: National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (hereafter, NHSDA)

The dangerous effects of marijuana are largely myth. Although the government has long opposed marijuana legalization in the name of public health and safety, every independent commission appointed to evaluate the dangers of marijuana use has found this claim to be unsubstantiated:

  • For example, President Nixon’s National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse concluded in 1972, after years of research, that, “[t]here is little proven danger of physical or psychological harm from the experimental or intermittent use of natural preparations of cannabis.” Despite the fact that it had been established in the hopes of finding fuel for just the opposite conclusion, the commission recommended the decriminalization of marijuana for personal use. Nixon ignored the recommendation of the commission his administration had appointed.

    Source: “Marijuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding,” the Report of the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse (available at above site)

  • In 1982, the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine released its findings that, “[o]ver the last forty years marijuana has been accused of causing an array of anti-social effects including . . . provoking crime and violence, . . . leading to heroin addiction, . . . and destroying the American work ethic in young people. [These] beliefs . . . have not been substantiated by scientific evidence.”

    Source: Analysis of Marijuana laws conducted by National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine, 1982 (available at above site).

Tobacco use has worse health consequences than marijuana use, and is more addictive – resulting in greater compulsive (hence health-endangering) use. There are 15 million alcoholics in this country whose lives are in disarray. Alcohol results in 22,000 deaths a year as a result of drunk driving alone. Yet neither of these drugs is prohibited by law.

Source: “New Jim Crow.”

Nonetheless, the government continues to issue harsh sentences on those convicted of marijuana crimes, and to ignore the possible health benefits of medical marijuana use.

Marijuana Arrests, Harsh Sentences, and Prison Overpopulation:

  • Just under half of the million and a half annual arrests for non-violent drug violations are for marijuana. Because the vast majority of drug arrests are for non-violent offenses, this means that marijuana use is responsible for close to one half of this country’s “drug problem.”

    Source: “New Jim Crow.” (Backed up by FBI Uniform Crime Report stats, at website above.)

  • According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports Division’s Annual Report, “Crime in the United States,” there were 695,201 marijuana arrests in 1997 (more than in any previous year). 87.2% of these were for mere “possession.” Only 12.8% were for “sale/manufacture,” which includes manufacture for personal use and possession of sufficient amounts of marijuana (usually over one ounce) that “intent to deliver” is inferred, even though the drugs may have been intended for personal use only. Click here to learn more.

    Source: FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports for 1997and Marijuana Policy Project (at above websites)

  • The total number of arrests in 1997, as reported by the FBI, for all violent crimes – murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault – combined was not much higher, at 717,720.

    Source: FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports for 1997(at above website)

  • Because police lack the resources to enforce drug laws against all 17 million regular marijuana users, the prohibition of so commonplace an activity invites selective law enforcement. Similarly, the vast number of marijuana arrests invites selective prosecution. Unfortunately, as statistics show, such discretion generally falls along racially defined lines.

    Source: “New Jim Crow.”

  • Harsh mandatory minimum sentencing laws for drug offenses result in prisons overfilled with non-violent marijuana offenders serving long sentences, often disproportionate to their crime. Take, for example, the case of Joe Pinson, convicted in 1993 of marijuana cultivation and possession – his first offense – and sentenced to a mandatory five-year jail term, despite the fact that he grew the marijuana because it helped treat his debilitating asthma symptoms.<

    Source: ACLU Spring Spotlight 98, above website.

  • Under New York State law, the penalty for possession of 16 ounces of marijuana is equivalent to that for illegally selling a firearm, or for possession an explosive bomb or machine gun: a minimum jail sentence of one to three years (and a maximum of seven). The penalty for selling 16 ounces of marijuana is equivalent to that for illegally selling 10 firearms: 3? to 15 years in jail. The absurd message: pot is as or more harmful than guns.

    Source: “Drugs and Guns in New York State,” compiled by Carl Bromley, from The Nation magazine, Sept. 20, 1999, “Beyond Legalization: New Ideas for Ending the War on Drugs.”

  • Law enforcement authorities are not the only ones seeking to punish people for smoking a joint. Civilian organizations like employers and schools have instituted extensive drug testing programs to weed out marijuana:
    • Many employees, public as well as private, are now submitted to suspicionless urinalysis drug testings. Because its use is detectable in the body weeks after ingestion (long after the drug’s psychoactive effects have ceased), and because it is such a popular drug, marijuana is chief drug turned up by these tests. A positive test result can lead to suspension, mandatory treatment, and even firing, despite the fact that tests do not measure work impairment. As ACLU Director Ira Glasser put it, “it’s as if you were tested and fired from your job for a drink you had at a party last Saturday night.”

      Source: ACLU Spring 1998 National ACLU Members’ Bulletin (Issue 3) – Spotlight: “Why Marijuana Law Reform Should Matter To You,” by Ira Glasser.

    • Many schools now drug test students without suspicion as well, and Michigan instituted a suspicionless drug testing program for welfare recipients. The DPLP is currently litigating three drug testing cases, claiming that suspicionless testing constitutes a violation of Fourth Amendment protection from unreasonable searches.