The debate on whether to or not to decriminalize possession and use of cannabis has been in existence for quite a long time. Some individuals have been against the idea that just by one simply being found with the substance could warrant him or her severe punishment as a jail term. Up to date marijuana possession is treated as a criminal offence in most countries. This means anyone found in possession of the substance is charged in the court and either subjected to a jail term or a fine.
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This debate has come up with several important arguments on why decriminalization of this substance is appropriate (Australian Institute of Criminology, and the New South Wales Department of Politics 7). One of the main reasons that the supporters of this argument have progressed is that by decriminalization of marijuana, the government would save huge amounts of money that it uses on enforcing laws that relate to possession and use of the substance.
In addition, reports from various commissions and academic studies that have been carried out in the last two decades have indicated that decriminalization of marijuana has little or no contribution to its increase in use among the populations in the state where the new law has been enacted.
History of Marijuana Decriminalization
There have been active movements’ activities that have sought to reform the laws on marijuana since the 1970s in various nations. The increase in the use of the marijuana even after it was outlawed has led to increase in the costs incurred by the government when enforcing these rules and undertaking court proceedings.
In addition, the attitudes that most individuals had regarding the substance use was becoming more positive. This made many states and nations begin reforming the strict rules they had placed on the offences of being found in possession of marijuana. For instance, the period between 1923 and 1978 saw thirteen states in the United States decriminalizing the small amounts of marijuana possession.
These states were “Alaska, Colorado, Massechusetts, California, Maine, Minnesota, Nebraska, New York, Missisippi, Nevada, North Carolina, Oregon and Ohio.” This was after Oregon State began this process where it reduced the possession offence of an individual found with less than 1 oz by inflicting a small fine of not more than 100 dollars.
This was contributed by change of people’s attitudes towards marijuana and an increase in cases of more individuals especially those who came from influential backgrounds being found in the possession of the substance. As a result of the enforcement of the new laws, the jail terms or other strict rules were replaced by only a small fine in most states.
Effects of the decriminalization of marijuana
The decriminalization of possession of marijuana in various states had great impacts on various issues in the society. These changes were observed in various aspects like patterns of use, costs of justice and even health care.
Impacts on the pattern of use
Initially there was fear that decriminalization of marijuana would lead to the increase in the use of the substance within the population. This is especially after the survey by the US Government confirmed that 25.8 million individuals used marijuana once a year while the percentage that use the drug monthly was about 6 percent. The report also showed that in the American population, about 95 million individuals, about 47 percent of the entire population, experiment with marijuana in their lifetime.
However, there were no reliable changes in the rates of use in most states after the decriminalization law was enacted. According to a study conducted by Rosalie, Jamie, and Janna (23), the states that decriminalized marijuana noted only slight changes while in other states, there was no change at all. For instance, in the states that noted a slight increase, the percentage was only 2 percent among the students in high school and other juveniles.
When a comparison was done between the states that have decriminalized and those that have not, it was noted that in the decriminalized states, rates increased immediately the law was enacted but later leveled in most states for both those who had decriminalized and those who had not. Single (459) therefore concludes that there was no considerable change even with enactment of the decriminalization of marijuana rule.
The other survey that was carried out was on the rate of those who were found in the possession of marijuana after decriminalization law. According to study that was carried out, there was no direct effect between the relationship of the number of offenders and the punishment imposed.
However, due to the effect the offender gets both in the access to future employment and the stigma that the family and other members of the society hold the culprit with, the possession would be low regardless of whether the decriminalization was passed or not.
This is particularly because possession of marijuana is still a major issue in the society even with the elimination of the punishment. The controls are therefore enacted by the social environment and the individual’s career prospects. This is because an employer may refuse to recruit an individual who has records of marijuana possession.
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Impacts on crime
There was also a major concern on the effect of decriminalization of marijuana on the rate of crime. Most individuals saw the enactment of this law as a factor that would lead to an increase in the rate of crime. Most individuals arrived at this conclusion from the analysis they had of the comparison of those who often ended up in jail where the greatest percentage had used drugs in the recent period before they were convicted.
However, this is a conclusion that has no substantial evidence. This is because other factors especially the social-economic factors are active causes of increase in the rate of crime (Erickson 1156). On close scrutiny, therefore, marijuana use has little relation with individual’s criminal behavior.
According to a review carried out on drug control policies, marijuana was rated the least in its ability to generate activities related to crime compared to other illicit drugs like heroine and cocaine. The review also noted that marijuana has less chances of triggering violent activities since those who use the drug are those from middle and upper social economic classes. Decriminalization of marijuana may not be a reason for increase in the rate of crime in the society (Erickson 1166).
Impacts on Criminal Justice system
The decriminalization of marijuana had an impact on the criminal justice system which was largely viewed as being positive especially due to the economic impact it had on this area. This is because offences related to marijuana possession dropped in all the states that implemented the new law where most states reduced this rate to more than 30 percent (National Academy of Sciences 102).
As a result, these states observed a remarkable decrease in the costs that were incurred in the enforcement of laws related to possession of marijuana. In addition, as a result of fewer cases being taken to court, there was reduction in the resources and costs that were initially spent in processing these cases. This is because before decriminalization law was enacted, marijuana possession cases dominated the court proceedings thus taking up most of the resources.
The cost saving has been felt in all levels of law enforcement systems. The correction system was another area that observed reduction in the cost factor. This is in areas like jail, prison and even those who were on probation.
There were many individuals who would be arrested for crimes related to marijuana making the number to be as high as 755,000. This was an expensive burden to the crime and justice system. This is because among those who would end up in these arrests, most of the individuals would earn a jail term or at least spend some time in there while waiting to be released.
This was a big expense to the system as they had to pass through the booking process which is the most expensive process in the correction process. The reduction in the number of individuals who were arrested due to possession of marijuana, therefore, was a major factor in the reduction of these costs as the reduction of these cases reduced the costs incurred and even ensured the safety of the system facility.
On evaluation of these costs and benefits, one would conclude that decriminalization has been beneficial to the states that have enacted the new law. However, it is important to understand that some of these figures were based on scientific data some of which may not have a large impact. This is particularly because very few states undertook the research before and after the decriminalization law was enacted.
As a result, most of the conclusions that were made, results were arrived at on the basis of comparison. This is because there was no availability of primary data that would have been used to make authentic conclusions. In addition, lack of jurisdiction in these countries where decriminalization of marijuana has been enacted like the United States and Canada have made it hard to evaluate the marijuana use adequately. This is especially after the policy of decriminalization was enacted.
The conclusion that decriminalization of marijuana reduces government expenses especially due to reduction of costs in the areas of criminal justice and correction systems, may be refuted. This is because individuals making such a conclusion have to understand that the government places a fixed amount on these systems which means that it does not reduce its level of this amount based on reduction or increase in the number of activities that the criminal justice undertake.
Otherwise this reduction would only be visible and significant to the government spending if the police who undertake these activities were laid off and the court rooms stopped all their activities. Since decriminalization of marijuana is not likely to lead to such dramatic changes, the current cost saving figures being generated by various commissions may be overlooking some important factors leading to their misguided conclusions.
The only benefit that decriminalization may be counted to have caused in the criminal justice system that seems authentic is reduction of its expenses on the enforcement of marijuana laws and directing these resources to more meaningful areas like crimes that are more serious and which affect the whole population.
In order to help parents and the voters to come up with an informed decision on the impact of decriminalization policy on the economy and the changes in the rates of crimes, the various commissions and academic studies need to establish a way of acquiring primary data where possible in order to avoid misleading the public.
Reduction of the punishment met on those found in possession or using marijuana by various states is definitely a positive move. Though there were speculations that decriminalizing marijuana would increase its consumption among the populations of these states, studies have shown that there is little or no evidence to these speculations.
Reduction in amount used in the enforcement of marijuana laws has also given the criminal justice system a chance to use these funds in more meaningful areas. However, lack of primary data has resulted to making important decisions based on comparison or through use of secondary data.
In addition, lack of new cases of jurisdictions that have passed through this process of decriminalization has led to a decision that may be detrimental due to overgeneralization and use of assumptions. In order to come up with a decision that will be beneficial to all aspects of a nation, the various commissions involved need to also focus on the effect that the cost reduction has after the enactment of decriminalization policy especially to the tax payer.
This is as opposed to making a general conclusion that since there was reduction in number of cases the criminal justice system and the court handled, there was equal reduction in the government expenses. This is because some of these reductions may not have been very meaningful to the common tax payer as the government still pumped the same amount of funds to these institutions.
Australian Institute of Criminology, and the New South Wales Department of Politics. Marijuana in Australia, patterns and attitudes. Monograph Series No. 31. Canberra, Australia: Looking Glass Press, 1997. Print.
Erickson, Patricia G. “The law, social control, and drug policy: Models, factors and processes.” The International Journal of the Addictions 28. 2; (1993): 1155-1176. Print.
National Academy of Sciences. Marijuana and medicine: Assessing the science base. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1999. Print.
Rosalie, Pacula, Jamie Chriqui, and Janna King. Marijuana decriminalization: what does it mean in the United States? Working Paper 9690. Washington, DC: National Bureau of Economic Research, 2003. Print.
Single, Eric. “The impact of marijuana decriminalization: an update.” Journal of Public Health Policy 10.4; (1989): 456-466. Print.