Why COVID-19 Makes Marijuana Enforcement a Waste of Resources

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Marijuana legalization rally in Washington D.C, 2011. Photo by Elvert Barnes via Flickr.

In red and blue states, from rural areas to urban centers, marijuana and drug policy reforms are uniting Americans at a time of deep political division.

Voters passed every ballot initiative regarding cannabis, with Arizona, New Jersey, Montana and South Dakota legalizing adult-use, and Mississippi authorizing medical marijuana. Oregon took things a step further and decriminalized low-level possession of all drugs.

One in three Americans will soon live in a state where marijuana is legal for adults.

And now the U.S. House – in a bipartisan vote earlier this month – passed the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, the most comprehensive marijuana legalization bill in our country’s history to make it this far through the federal legislature.

The MORE Act would federally de-schedule cannabis, expunge the records of those with prior marijuana convictions, and reinvest in communities most impacted by the War on Drugs, largely communities of color.

Some have suggested the bill has little chance of success in the Senate even though 60 percent of Republican voters support the MORE Act. If true, that would be a deeply disappointing failure to respect the will of the American people.

As the ongoing health and economic crises of the COVID-19 pandemic further expose the injustices of marijuana policy, there has never been a more important moment for reform.

Despite the recent gains for drug policy reform, and even as 38 states and Washington, D.C. have now decriminalized marijuana or authorized its medical use, police made a marijuana arrest every 58 seconds last year.

The over-policing of marijuana continues to devastate marginalized communities across the country, too often resulting in criminal convictions and disastrous consequences of criminal justice involvement, including job loss, reduced lifelong wages, and federal benefit restrictions.

And while research consistently shows that Black and white people use marijuana at the same rate, Black people are nearly four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession.

Once convicted, they get longer sentences than their white counterparts, separating them from their families and disrupting entire communities.

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Miriam Krimsky

Even as policy has changed in some states and a growing number of reform-minded prosecutors have stopped prosecuting many marijuana violations, Black people are still more likely to be arrested for possession in every decriminalized and legalized state.

The regressive policies stemming from the failed War on Drugs are not what communities want – recent polling shows that the majority of Americans from both parties support reform and an end to criminalizing marijuana use.

And over 50 law enforcement and prosecution leaders from around the nation stood together earlier this year in calling for change.

The American people recognize that not only is over-policing marijuana taking a human toll on communities, but it’s also taking a financial toll, especially at a time of shrinking budgets resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

One study conservatively estimated that an average marijuana arrest took 2.5 hours of police time in New York City, where, as of 2018, police made more than 17,000 marijuana arrests each year on average.

That’s more than 42,500 police hours on marijuana arrests in just one city in a single year.

And a 2013 study found that enforcing marijuana possession laws cost states more than $3.6 billion each year.

With the tremendous resources spent arresting and prosecuting marijuana cases, one would think that fewer people would be using it, but that’s simply not the case.

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Eli Savit

Billions have been wasted on a futile effort to eradicate marijuana, all while the average person loses more and more faith in our criminal legal system. The legitimacy and efficacy of law enforcement depends on the trust of the community.

Over-policing breeds doubt in the entire justice system. People who don’t trust police don’t report crimes or call for help, which makes it that much harder to keep communities safe.

Meanwhile, a new report from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office showed that enacting the MORE Act would increase revenue by $13.7 billion and reduce the federal deficit by $7.3 billion between 2021 and 2030.

Additionally, the report estimates implementation would reduce time served by 73,000 person-years, not only saving money but also reducing the human impact of incarceration on families and communities.

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Neill Franklin

The passage of the MORE Act in the House was a critical first step to ending decades of unnecessary, punitive marijuana policy that have furthered racial disparities at every level of the justice system.

Now is the time for the Senate to listen to the will of the people. The impact will reverberate through communities across the country, promoting public safety, stimulating economic growth, and rebuilding trust in law enforcement.

Eli Savit is the Prosecuting Attorney-Elect for Washtenaw County (Ann Arbor), Michigan. 

 Maj. Neill Franklin is a 34-year veteran of the Maryland State Police and the Baltimore Police Department and the Executive Director of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, an organization of law enforcement officials advocating for criminal justice and drug policy reforms.

Miriam Aroni Krinsky is a former federal prosecutor and the Executive Director of Fair and Just Prosecution, a national network of elected prosecutors working towards common-sense, compassionate criminal justice reforms.