In the last 25 years, 210,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession. More than half of these arrests took place from 2001-2010. Marijuana possession arrests in Colorado rose sharply over the past 25 years -- from 4,000 in 1986 to 10,500 in 2010. Despite the increased show of force over the last decade, Colorado's crackdown has not decreased use or availability -- the stated goals of prohibition.
Young adults bear the brunt of marijuana enforcement measures. Eighty-six percent of those arrested were age 34 or younger, 79 percent were 29 or younger, and 69 percent were 24 or younger. Science has now conclusively debunked the theory that marijuana is a gateway to other drugs, but these numbers show that marijuana arrests are indeed a gateway into the criminal justice system for many otherwise law-abiding young people.
The resources invested by Colorado to maintain this approach comes at a stern cost to taxpayers. Reports estimate that Colorado spends $40 to $60 million on marijuana prohibition every year,
Colorado -- like many other states across the country -- funnels disproportionately high numbers of blacks and Latinos into the criminal justice system, and even jail in certain jurisdictions. Black people are arrested at three times the rate of whites, while Latinos are arrested at 1.5 times the rate of whites. Even in Colorado counties where the black population is less than 5 percent, the arrest rate was double that of whites.
The mostly young, poor adults who receive the label of drug offender understand all too well why many are now referring to the war on drugs as "the new Jim Crow." Marijuana possession arrests create easily-accessible criminal records, which can be found on the Internet by employers, landlords, schools, credit agencies, licensing boards and banks. As a result, the consequence of being labeled a drug offender is a lifelong barrier to employment, housing and education for those who already have a tough road ahead.
California NAACP President Alice Huffman describes the hypocrisy of marijuana prohibition well:
"Our recent history is filled with elected officials (including our current president), business leaders and others who have admitted using marijuana and was nonetheless able to lead productive lives. How many would have been able to do so if they were subjected to current law enforcement practices?"
These very practices distract and divert limited law enforcement resources from combating serious, violent crime. Many law enforcement professionals agree that marijuana prohibition is detrimental to overall public safety and that it destroys the relationship between law enforcement and the communities they serve.
Marijuana prohibition is counterproductive to the health and public safety of our communities, fuels a massive, violent underground economy, wastes billions of dollars in scarce law enforcement resources, and makes criminals out of millions of otherwise law-abiding citizens. It's time to bring marijuana out of the shadows and under the rule of law -- and Colorado is suited to lead the way.
Art Way is the Colorado Manager of the Drug Policy Alliance.
This piece first appeared on the Drug Policy Alliance Blog.