Can Marijuana reform end mass incarceration?
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This week’s DEA decision to keep marijuana classified as a Schedule I drug (categorized as having no medical potential and a high potential for abuse) has disappointed advocates for drug policy reform.

They contend that marijuana is less dangerous and addictive than drugs like cocaine and heroin, or even alcohol. But many reformers also argue that marijuana reform is the first step in ending mass incarceration. In many respects this appears to be wishful thinking.

There’s no question that the “war on marijuana” is overblown and unproductive. Since the early 1990s the focus of drug arrests nationally has shifted from a prior emphasis on cocaine and heroin to increasing marijuana arrests. By 2014 marijuana accounted for nearly half of the 1.5 million drug arrests nationally.

But while this elevated level of marijuana enforcement is counterproductive in many respects, there is little evidence to indicate that it has been a substantial contributor to mass incarceration. Of the 1.5 million people in state or federal prisons, only about 40,000 are incarcerated for a marijuana offense. The vast majority of this group is behind the walls for selling, not using, the drug, often in large quantities. We could debate whether even high-level marijuana sellers should be subject to lengthy incarceration, but they constitute less than 3% of the prison population.

In other respects, though, marijuana law enforcement imposes substantial costs on the justice system. Few marijuana arrests may result in a prison term, but they consume enormous resources through police time making arrests and court appearances, probation and parole revocations, and time spent in local jails following arrest or serving a short sentence. And all of this activity comes with public safety tradeoffs. Time spent by police making marijuana arrests is time not spent responding to domestic violence disputes or guns on the streets.

While it may be misleading to portray the marijuana reform movement as the beginning of the end of mass incarceration, there are ways in which we could transform the national dialogue to make a more direct link. For a start, we should call attention to the parallels between marijuana and the overall drug war. In particular, the drug war has prioritized supply reduction through international interdiction campaigns and a heavy-handed law enforcement response. This approach has had little impact on either drug availability or price, and has drained resources from more effective allocations to prevention and treatment programming.

The racial disparities of marijuana law enforcement are emblematic of the drug war as well, with African Americans more than three times as likely to be arrested for a marijuana offense as whites, despite similar rates of use. Such outcomes bring to mind the vast disparities in crack cocaine arrests, as well as the use of “stop and frisk” policing tactics often premised on drug law enforcement, and exacting a substantial toll in communities of color.

Finally, the drug war outcomes should encourage us to consider how we approach public safety overall. Just as the drug war has prioritized back-end approaches of arrest and punishment, so too have our crime policies emphasized incarceration at the expense of early intervention. There is now a growing consensus that mass incarceration is well past the point of diminishing returns for crime control, and is imposing high costs on low-income families and communities. And as we have seen so tragically in the aftermath of police killings of African Americans in many cities, the policies of recent decades have only exacerbated tensions between law enforcement agencies and black communities, along with eroding legitimacy.

There is reason for hope that change may be at hand. National drug policy is shifting toward a greater emphasis on treatment approaches to substance abuse, and thoughtful leaders in law enforcement are serving as models for how to engage communities in collaborative efforts for promoting public safety.

The national debate on drug policy is worthwhile on its own, but we should also seek to extend that conversation into the realm of mass incarceration.

Marc Mauer is the Executive Director of The Sentencing Project and the author of Race to Incarcerate.


 

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