Press Release  | 05/18/2005

Drug Czar Attempts Damage Control After Report Shows that Nonviolent Marijuana Users Make up Almost Half of Drug War Arrests

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Disingenuous ONDCP Report Minimizes Devastating Impact of War on Marijuana Users: Omits Data on Jails and Parolees, Ignores Collateral Consequences

In a report released today, the Office of National Drug Control Policy attempted to do damage control after the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based think tank, released a report showing that the primary targets of the war on drugs are marijuana users. 700,000 people are arrested annually on marijuana charges, 87% of whom are arrested for non-violent possession.

The ONDCP report, titled "Who's Really in Prison for Marijuana?", paints a picture in which very few people charged with non-violent marijuana offenses suffer serious consequences. But its disingenuous conclusions are the result of several problematic omissions, which include:

The report's misleading title, which is reinforced throughout the text, emphasizes misleading "prison" numbers in order to advance the idea that few people are behind bars on marijuana charges. It neglects to include the number of people in jails for marijuana violations. Jails account for about one third of the total number of people behind bars in this country.

In its calculations, the ONDCP ignores the tens of thousands of people on probation or parole who are reincarcerated simply because of minor marijuana offenses (such as testing positive for marijuana in a drug test, or for minor marijuana possession). They are not listed as marijuana offenders, but rather under their original charge.

The ONDCP report completely ignores the collateral consequences of being arrested--even if one doesn't wind up serving time behind bars, arrest is extremely costly. It can lead to losing one's job, and losing time and money due to lawyer fees and lost wages. Anyone convicted of even the most minor marijuana offense has a criminal record that limits his or her employment options, loses college financial aid, and is banned from public housing and from receiving public assistance.

"The drug czar realized that the American public does not support mass arrests for marijuana possession," said Ethan Nadelmann executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "Unfortunately, instead of changing his policies, he just tries to put a compassionate face on a war on drugs that is devastating American families. That's what this report is about--sugar coating the bitter truth."

BACKGROUND:

  • Police make about 700, 000 arrests per year for marijuana offenses --roughly 87% of those are for nothing more than possession of small amounts.
  • Almost as many people are arrested for marijuana as for all other illicit drugs combined.
  • Enforcing marijuana laws costs an estimated $10-15 billion taxpayer dollars per year in direct costs alone.
  • More than 50% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 50 have tried marijuana at least once.
  • 72% of Americans favor decriminalization--applying a fine, not jail time.
  • 40% of Americans favor legalizing marijuana and treating it like alcohol, according to a 2003 Zogby poll.
  • Unlike alcohol and many other drugs, no one has ever died of a marijuana overdose.
  • Alabama locks up people convicted three times of marijuana possession for 15 years to life.
  • More than 80% of high school students report that it's easy to get marijuana.
  • Every state ballot initiative to legalize medical marijuana has been approved.
  • Though it publicly denies that marijuana has medical value, the federal government currently provides marijuana from its own production site in Mississippi to a few court-certified patients.
  • In the Netherlands, where cannabis is decriminalized, it is no more popular than in the U.S.

Tony Newman at (212) 613-8026

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