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Federal Legislation Considers New Approach to Marijuana Possession

Jag Davies,
Drug Law Reform Project
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April 25, 2008

For the first time in a quarter of a century, legislation has been introduced in Congress that would eliminate federal criminal sanctions for possession of small amounts of marijuana.

Considering that 89 percent of the mind-boggling 829,625 people arrested for marijuana law offenses in 2006 – the most recent year for which data is available – were arrested for mere possession, the bi-partisan ‘Personal Use of Marijuana by Responsible Adults Act of 2008’ would go a long way toward increasing public safety by freeing up our federal law enforcement resources to focus on serious, violent crime. Taxpayers are stuck with the multibillion dollar bill for these hundreds of thousands of marijuana arrests, which consume 4.5 million law enforcement hours – the equivalent of taking 112,500 law enforcement officers off the streets.

Unfortunately, it will be an uphill battle for the bill’s co-sponsors, Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Ron Paul (R-Texas), to move it through the current Congress.

It shouldn’t be. According to a 2001 Zogby poll, 61 percent of Americans oppose arresting and jailing nonviolent marijuana users, while a 2002 Time/CNN poll found that 72 percent of Americans think people arrested for marijuana possession should face fines rather than jail time. Yet, legislators remain under the impression that support for marijuana law reform would brand them with a stigma as soft-on-crime. That’s a shame for the three-quarters of a million small-time marijuana offenders who this year will be branded with the stigma of arrest, leading to employment discrimination, loss of financial aid for college and other public assistance, loss of child custody, and oftentimes imprisonment.

Way back in 1972, a special commission created by Congress and President Richard Nixon concluded that states and the federal government should decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use, finding that the harms of marijuana laws outweigh the potential harms of marijuana use. Although the federal government disregarded the report, 12 states followed its recommendation to decriminalize marijuana possession. Significantly, a 1999 report by the Institute of Medicine commissioned by the Office of National Drug Control Policy found no difference in marijuana use rates between states that have decriminalized marijuana and those that have continued to make arrests for marijuana possession.

Now is a unique opportunity to tell our elected leaders that our nation’s unsound marijuana laws are not tough-on-crime – but they are tough on taxpayers’ wallets and public safety. Please urge your Congressional Representative to co-sponsor and support this historic legislation by sending a personalized message to your Congressional Representative.

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