Harrison, Lana D., Michael Backenheimer and James A. Inciardi (1995), Cannabis use in the United States: Implications for policy. In: Peter Cohen & Arjan Sas (Eds) (1996), Cannabisbeleid in Duitsland, Frankrijk en de Verenigde Staten. Amsterdam, Centrum voor Drugsonderzoek, Universiteit van Amsterdam. pp. 254-258.
© Copyright 1995, 1996 Centrum voor Drugsonderzoek, Universiteit van Amsterdam. All rights reserved.

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7  Enforcement and prison costs

Lana D. Harrison, Michael Backenheimer and James A. Inciardi

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 1990 the United States spent $74.249 billion on justice system expenditures (Maguire and Pastore, 1994). This includes federal, state, local, county and municipal expenditures. (Unfortunately, 1990 is the latest year for which data are available.) The major category of costs were police protection at $31.805 billion (42.8%) and corrections at $24.961 billion (33.6%). Between 1971 and 1990, the justice system expenditures have increased 606.0%. For the period 1979-1990, the figure is 185.3% and for the period 1985-1990, the figure is 62.8%. In the time frame since 1979, the percentage increase has been greatest for corrections. The expenditure for this activity increased 313.3% in the period 1979-1990 and increased 91.5% in the period 1985-1990. For the year 1990, three cents (3.3%) of each government dollar was for justice activities; 1.4% for police protection, 1.1% for corrections and 0.7% for judicial and legal services. However, the Federal Government spent less than 1% (1 cent) of each dollar for justice while the State Governments were spending 6% (6 cents) of each dollar and local governments were spending nearly 7% (7 cents) of each dollar for justice activities (BJS, 1992a, p. 1). This differential is probably due to the fact that criminal and civil justice activities are primarily the responsibility of State and local governments. Jointly, the State and local governments expended 87% of all justice monies while the Federal government's share was 13% (BJS, 1992a, p. 1). Taken as a whole, Federal, State, and local governments spent, in 1990, $299 per capita on criminal and civil justice. The figure for only State and local governments is $261 per capita (BJS, 1992a, p. 1).

A major research effort was initiated that sought to ascertain the direct and indirect costs of drug use for the years 1985 and 1988 (Rice et al., 1992, pp. 10-32). This effort showed, for the year 1985, that the total economic cost of drug use was $44.1 billion. Direct crime costs were calculated at $13.2 billion. This figure includes costs associated with public police protection, private legal defense and property destruction. While no direct crime costs are given for 1988, the total drug use costs were calculated at $58.3 billion and it seems reasonable to assume that direct costs were up at least proportionate to the overall increase.

Considering the Federal budget with respect to drug use activities, the total amount requested for the Fiscal Year 1996 is $14.6 billion. Of this $14.6 billion, $9.3 billion (64%) is for supply reduction (law enforcement) and $5.3 billion (36%) is for demand reduction (treatment, prevention and education). For Fiscal Year 1994, a total of $12.2 billion was allocated for illegal drug activities with $7.8 billion being supply reduction (64%) and $4.4 billion (36%) being demand reduction. The estimated 1995 figures are a total of $13.4 billion with $8.3 billion being supply reduction (62%) and $4.9 billion (38%) being demand reduction (The White House, 1995). Using the three cited years as trend data would confirm that supply side drug activities receive far more Federal funding than do demand side activities.

State and local governments reflect this economic division even more keenly. In 1990 State and local governments spent approximately $14.1 billion on drug control activities. Of this amount, $11.5 billion (81.8%) was for justice activities and just $2.5 billion (less than 18%) went for health and education activities related to drug control. For 1991, approximately a 13% increase in spending is noted with $15.9 billion spent by State and local governments on drug control activities. The cited division remains - $12.6 billion (79.2%) was spent on justice activities and $3.3 billion (20.8%) on health and education activities. It should, however, be noted that the $3.3 billion spent in 1991 on health and education is a 32% increase over the 1990 figure (ONDCP, 1993, p. 3).

About 1.4 cents of every dollar spent in 1990 by State and local governments went for drug control. In 1991 this figure was 1.5 cents. Drug control activities within the justice realm constituted 1.2 cents of every dollar in 1990 and remained constant at 1.2 cents in 1991. For health and education activities within the drug control realm these figures were .2 cents (.002%) in 1990 and .3 cents (.003%) in 1991 (ONDCP, 1992, p. 3).

Three states exceeded $1 billion each in the dollars spent on drug control in 1991. These were the States of California, New York and Florida. Together, they totaled 44% of all State and local spending for drug control. The following table presents the top five and top bottom States on a per capita basis in terms of amount spent in 1991 on drug control activities. Reducing cost to a per capita basis has the effect of neutralizing the population density within any one state and is probably a better measure than total dollars spent. Nationally, the per capita spending figure was $63.08 in 1991 and $56.59 in 1990 (ONDCP, 1992, p. 11).

Table 8. Top Five and Top Bottom States of Amount Spent in 1991 on Drug Control.
State Per Capita Spending 1991 Rank
Alaska $154.44 1
New York $149.00 2
Connecticut $130.45 3
California $102.30 4
Florida $85.04 5
Mississippi $21.99 46
West Virginia $20.87 47
North Dakota $19.64 48
Arkansas $19.36 49
South Dakota $13.73 50

The costs per day per jail inmate in 1988 were about $218 (BJS, 1990b). In terms of prison inmate costs in 1990, the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates the cost at $15,604 for a state inmate and $14,456 for a Federal inmate (BJS, 1992a, p. 4). These expenditures include salaries and expenses of personnel, food, supplies, and land rental, but do not include capital expenditures such as building prisons, improvements, etc. The foundation, Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), cites the Bureau of Prisons in 1994 as estimating the total cost of incarcerating a federal prisoner at $20,804 per annum (FAMM, 1994). In 1991, State and local governments spent $6.8 billion on correctional services for inmates having a drug offense. In terms of total drug control spending this amounted to 43% of the total figure (ONDCP, 1992, p. 4).

Data from the Bureau of Prisons (Federal prisoners only) is instructive in putting the issue in perspective (The White House, 1995, pp. 101-104). In 1994 the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) had a total agency budget of $2,232.1 million. Of this figure, 63% ($1,410.7 million) was expended on the drug-related inmate population. The estimated 1995 budget is $2,638.2 million with 64% ($1,694.0 million) projected as expended on the drug-related inmate population. For 1996, the requested budget is $2,977.6 million with 65% ($1,942.4 million) being the drug share. The 'drug share' includes salaries and expenses based on the 'number of inmates projected to be convicted of drug-related offenses during the year;' and for buildings and facilities as the 'projected drug-related inmate population at the time current-year initiatives are scheduled to become operational' (The White House, 1995, p. 101). It is further estimated that in 1995, some 30.5% of the sentenced inmate population is drug dependent. In 1991 there were 28,650 drug offenders sentenced as Federal inmates. Of this number, 21% (6,015) were marijuana related. At the Federal level, it can thus be seen that imprisoning drug offenders is a very high ticket item with respect to budget and that at least a significant minority of these costs are associated with offenses involving marijuana. With respect to State and local spending in 1991, it is estimated that approximately 25% of the corrections budget was drug related (ONDCP, 1993, p. 4).

In terms of police effort, the burden of enforcing drug laws is significant (BJS, 1992b, p. 6). Almost 19,000 State and local law enforcement officers were engaged full time in this endeavor in 1990. This breaks down to over 16,000 local police and sheriffs' officers and over 2,000 State police officers having full time responsibility for drug enforcement. These officers were members of about 9,300 local police departments and 2,500 sheriffs' departments having primary responsibility for enforcement of drug laws. In total these departments in 1990 employed 466,000 full time (thus, not counting State police, about 3.4% of the departments' full time person power was devoted to drug law enforcement. For State police, this percentage is 4.7%. At the State and local level in 1991, approximately 12% of total police spending went for some aspect of drug control activity (ONDCP, 1993, p. 4).

Unfortunately, it is not possible to validly extract the amount attributable to enforcement of the marijuana laws, taking into consideration the costs of policing, arrests, the judiciary and incarceration, especially distinguishing between possession and sales/distribution offenses. However, data from California may be informative in this regard. California conducted a careful study of the economic impact of its marijuana decriminalization policy in the mid-1970s. In the early 1970s, with statewide arrests approaching 100,000 annually (over 90% of which were for simple possession), enforcement costs averaged well over $100 million per year (Moscone Committee, as referenced in Brownell, 1988). According to the study, decriminalization resulted in a 74% reduction in what the state had been spending yearly to enforce its marijuana laws (California Health and Welfare Agency, 1977; National Academy of Science, 1982). Aldrich and Mikuriya (1988) estimate the State of California has saved nearly half a billion dollars (about $46 million per year) in arrest costs alone since 1976. Subsequent estimates put the savings since 1988 at another half billion dollars (ABC News, April 6, 1995). In general, states that decriminalized marijuana possession in the 1970s reported savings in police and judicial resources (Slaughter, 1988).

One final note about costs for enforcement is that new laws are increasing the value of assets seized in connection with marijuana offenses. Such laws make it possible for the government to take profits and property of illicit drug operations and permits participating law enforcement organizations to share a percentage of such forfeited assets. Such seizures represent a significant amount of money. In 1987, the DEA seized $116.4 million in marijuana related cases. This was approximately 23% of all assets seized by the DEA. Forfeiture for marijuana cases in 1988 amounted to $157.3 million, again 23% of seized assets. For the year 1989, marijuana asset forfeitures dropped to $146 million, 15% of total seized assets. In 1990, asset forfeiture for marijuana related cases increased dramatically to $225.2 million, 20% of all forfeited assets. For 1991, $208.2 million in marijuana related assets were forfeited, 22 percent of all forfeited assets (DEA, no date).

Figures for all marijuana related cases for 1992 and later are not available. However, some data are available on seizures directly related to the Drug Enforcement Administration's Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program. For the year 1992, such forfeitures amounted to $69.2 million, an all time high and a 31% increase over the $52.8 million figure of 1991. In 1993, the forfeiture figure was $52.0 million, a return to about 1991 levels (DEA, 1992, p. 464). The point to be made is that the government is using the forfeiture laws as a major weapon in its effort to stem the supply of marijuana.

In summary, the enforcement of the marijuana statutes exerts a tremendous economic and social cost upon society. The cited material focuses more on drug costs than marijuana specific costs but when it is remembered that marijuana arrests constitute a major portion of all of the cited costs, the issue cannot be denied.


ABC NEWS. April 6, 1995. 'America's War on Drugs: Searching for Solutions.' Television Documentary.

BUREAU OF JUSTICE STATISTICS. 1992a. Justice Expenditure and Employment, 1990. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice.

BUREAU OF JUSTICE STATISTICS. 1992b. 'Almost 19,000 State and Local Law Enforcement Officers Fight Drugs Full Time,' National Update, Vol. II, No. 1, Washington, D.C. : U.S. Department of Justice.

DRUG ENFORCEMENT ADMINISTRATION (DEA). No Date. Domestic Marijuana Eradication: A Success Story (U.S. Department of Justice).

FAMILIES AGAINST MANDATORY MINIMUMS FOUNDATION. 1994. 'What are Mandatory Minimums?' (Brochure) Washington, D.C.

MAGUIRE, KATHLEEN AND ANN L. PASTORE (EDS.). 1994. Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics 1993. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, USGPO.

OFFICE OF NATIONAL DRUG CONTROL POLICY. 1993. State and Local Spending on Drug Control Activities: Report from the National Survey of State and Local Governments. Washington, D.C.: Executive Office of the President.

RICE, DOROTHY P., SANDER KELMAN AND LEONARD S. MILLER. 1991. 'Economic Costs of Drug Abuse,' in William Cartwright and James Kaple (eds.), Economic Costs, Cost-Effectiveness, Financing, and Community-Based Drug Treatment (Research Monograph No. 113). Rockville, MD: National Institute on Drug Abuse.

SLAUGHTER, J. 1988. 'Marijuana prohibition in the United States: History and Analysis of a Failed Policy.' Columbia Journal of Law and Social Problems 21(1): 417-475.

THE WHITE HOUSE. 1995. National Drug Control Strategy Budget Summary. Washington, D.C.: Executive Office of the President.

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