Marijuana Becomes Focus of Drug War

Drug arrests by substance

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By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 4, 2005

The focus of the drug war in the United States has shifted significantly over the past decade from hard drugs to marijuana, which now accounts for nearly half of all drug arrests nationwide, according to an analysis of federal crime statistics released yesterday.

The study of FBI data by a Washington-based think tank, the Sentencing Project, found that the proportion of heroin and cocaine cases plummeted from 55 percent of all drug arrests in 1992 to less than 30 percent 10 years later. During the same period, marijuana arrests rose from 28 percent of the total to 45 percent.

Coming in the wake of the focus on crack cocaine in the late 1980s, the increasing emphasis on marijuana enforcement was accompanied by a dramatic rise in overall drug arrests, from fewer than 1.1 million in 1990 to more than 1.5 million a decade later. Eighty percent of that increase came from marijuana arrests, the study found.

The rapid increase has not had a significant impact on prisons, however, because just 6 percent of the arrests resulted in felony convictions, the study found. The most widely quoted household survey on the topic has shown relatively little change in the overall rate of marijuana use over the same time period, experts said.

"In reality, the war on drugs as pursued in the 1990s was to a large degree a war on marijuana," said Ryan S. King, the study's co-author and a research associate at the Sentencing Project. "Marijuana is the most widely used illegal substance, but that doesn't explain this level of growth over time. . . . The question is, is this really where we want to be spending all our money?"

The think tank is a left-leaning group that advocates alternatives to traditional imprisonment. Criminologists and government officials confirmed the trend, which in some ways marks a return to a previous era. In 1982, marijuana arrests accounted for 72 percent of all drug arrests, according to the study.

Bush administration officials attribute the rise in marijuana arrests to a variety of factors: increased use among teenagers during parts of the 1990s; efforts by local police departments to focus more on street-level offenses; and growing concerns over the danger posed by modern, more potent versions of marijuana. The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy released a study yesterday showing that youth who use marijuana are more likely to develop serious mental health problems, including depression and schizophrenia.

"This is not Cheech and Chong marijuana," said David Murray, a policy analyst for the anti-drug office. "It's a qualitatively different drug, and that's reflected in the numbers."

The new statistics come amid signs of a renewed debate in political circles over the efficacy of U.S. drug policies, which have received less attention recently amid historically low crime rates and a focus on terrorism since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, for example, has formed a national committee to oversee prosecution of violent drug gangs and has vowed to focus more resources on the fight against methamphetamine manufacturers and other drug traffickers.

But increasingly, some experts have begun to argue that the U.S. drug war, which costs an estimated $35 billion a year, has had a minimal impact on consumption of illicit substances. The conservative American Enterprise Institute published a report in March titled "Are We Losing the War on Drugs?" Its authors argue that, among other things, "criminal punishment of marijuana use does not appear to be justified."

The study released yesterday by the Sentencing Project found that arrests for marijuana account for nearly all of the increase in drug arrests seen during the 1990s. The report also found that one in four people in state prisons for marijuana offenses can be classified as a "low-level offender," and it estimated that $4 billion a year is spent on arresting and prosecuting marijuana crimes.

In addition, the study showed that although African Americans make up 14 percent of marijuana users generally, they account for nearly a third of all marijuana arrests.

Among the most striking findings was the researchers' examination of arrest trends in New York City, which focused intently on "zero tolerance" policies during Rudolph W. Giuliani's mayoral administration. Marijuana arrests in the city increased tenfold from 1990 to 2002, from 5,100 to more than 50,000, the report said. Nine of 10 of arrests in 2002 were for possession rather than dealing.

The study also found a wide disparity in the growth of marijuana arrests in some of the United States' largest counties, from a 20 percent increase in San Diego to a 418 percent spike in King County, Wash. (The only decrease in the sample came in Northern Virginia's Fairfax County, where marijuana arrests declined by 37 percent.)

"There's been a major change in what's going on in drug enforcement, but it clearly isn't something that someone set out to do," said Jonathan Caulkins, a criminology professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. "It's not like anyone said, 'We don't care about cocaine and heroin anymore.' . . . The simple answer may be that police are now taking opportunities to make more marijuana arrests than they were when they were focused on crack cocaine in the 1980s."


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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