Drug Law

California Crime Stats Prove Need to Pass Prop. 19

| by NORML

It seems not a day goes by where the staff at NORML doesn’t receive some sort of e-mail or comment arguing that marijuana use is ‘already legal’ in California. Really? Then how do you explain this?

California Marijuana Arrests Remain Near Record Levels in 2009
via California NORML

According to data from the Bureau of Criminal Statistics, California reported nearly the same number of marijuana arrests in 2009 as in the previous, record year.

In 2009, there were 17,008 felony and 61,164 misdemeanor marijuana arrests, for a total of 78,172. In 2008, there were 17,126 felonies and 61,388 misdemeanors, for a total of 78,514. This was the highest number of arrests since marijuana was decriminalized in 1976.

So to summarize, this means that there have been more than 122,500 criminal prosecutions in California for the non-medical possession of marijuana of less than one ounce since 2008 (and that’s not counting 2010). Since marijuana possession is a criminal misdemeanor in California, that means that all of these individuals were forced to appear in court, pay court costs, pay an administrative fine, and were subject to either drug treatment or a temporary (2 years) criminal record. And, oh yeah, they also had their marijuana forcefully taken away from them by the full police power of the state.

Since 2008, there were also over 34,000 felony marijuana prosecutions (not counting 2010). Marijuana felonies in California include charges like: growing even a single marijuana plant for non-medical purposes (punishable by up to 36 months in prison), and the sale of any amount of marijuana for non-medical purposes (punishable by up to four years in prison).

Does that sound like legalization to you?

Passage of Prop. 19 would make the adult possession (up to an ounce) of marijuana and the cultivation of marijuana (whatever amount may be harvested from a 25 square foot garden) legal. In other words, it would halt the criminal prosecutions of tens of thousands of Californians who are presently running afoul of the criminal law. It would offer legal protection to the estimated 3.3 million Californians who are presently using marijuana for non-medical purposes. (By contrast, only an estimated 200,000 or so Californians possess a valid doctor’s recommendation to use cannabis lawfully.) And that is why NORML supports this effort.

In a similar vein, I’m also frequently asked the question: ‘Why legalize marijuana? Why not just decriminalize it?’

First, let’s look at what ‘decriminalization’ really means:



: to remove or reduce the criminal classification or status of; especially : to repeal a strict ban on while keeping under some form of regulation

The term ‘decriminalize’ first came into vogue in 1972 when the Nixon’s Schafer Commission recommended this public policy for marijuana. Their recommendation to Congress was to replace criminal penalties on adult possession with administrative (non-criminal) sanctions, such as a fine — but to keep the commodity defined as contraband and to maintain criminal penalties on its retail sale and production.

As a stopgap measure NORML has supported, and still supports, decriminalization. In fact, we are presently encouraging Californians to contact the Governor in support of Senate Bill 1449, which reduced adult possess penalties from a misdemeanor to a civil infraction.

But any public policy that mandates that marijuana remain, by definition, an illegal commodity (contraband) is woefully insufficient — as by definition it grants the state (law enforcement) the power to forcefully engage with the public in order to legally seize said commodity. That is why, even in places that have ‘decriminalized’ marijuana possession, we still see horrific acts of violence by police upon marijuana consumers like this and this.

By contrast, simply removing marijuana from the entire criminal code in California, which appears to be what some anti-19 Utopians would prefer, would not fall under the definition of decriminalization — which by its very definition still maintains government sanctions and regulations. In fact, it is hard to define any statutory term for such an idyllic change, as virtually all ‘legal’ commodities are defined as such, and are thus subject to rules and regulations. As I’ve written previously, tomatoes aren’t decriminalized; they are legal and thus subject to regulation and taxation when they are commercially produced and sold on the retail market.

I suppose one could argue that dandelions are non-criminal yet they are not subject to government taxation and regulation. But of course dandelions are not a commodity that is bought and sold on the open market. (Yes, like marijuana, dandelions also grow out of the ground. But, of course, so does wheat — which is highly regulated by the government.) And of course it is totally unrealistic to think that a commodity like marijuana, that is ingested and purchased by tens of millions of Americans, would ever be treated like dandelions.

It is foolish for critics of Prop. 19 to demand that marijuana be treated in a ‘legal’ manner, but then at the same time demand that it not be subject to regulation when the fact of the matter is that all legal commodities are regulated in some manner and subject to taxation.

Gasoline is taxed at the state level, federal level, and there’s also an excise tax. How about water? If your house is connected to a sewer your water consumption is taxed, and there are numerous regulations imposed upon it. The state can control what goes into your water (e.g., flouride). The state can even restrict how much water one uses (e.g., water rationing) in one’s own home. And of course there is alcohol. In this case the government regulates who can use it (e.g., age restrictions); where one can use it (e.g., no use in public parks, in motor vehicles, etc.), what time of day one can buy it, where one can buy it, how much one can brew themselves, how it can be advertised, and so on and so forth. Yet does anyone truly think that these commodities are not ‘fully legal’ because there are taxes and regulations associated with them? Does anyone really think that water should be ‘decriminalized, but not legalized?’

Ultimately, the question is: what is the preferable policy for adult marijuana use — not the Utopian. Right now the state has the power of a gun to seize an adult’s marijuana — even marijuana that is used in the privacy of one’s home home — and to sanction that adult with criminal prosecution and a criminal record if their use is for non-medical purposes. Under Prop. 19, an individual would no longer face these criminal sanctions for their private activities, as long as their private use was limited to possession and cultivation within certain limits. That, in NORML’s opinion, is a net gain — not a net loss.