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. 273-275.
© Copyright 1995, 1996 Centrum voor Drugsonderzoek, Universiteit van Amsterdam. All rights reserved.

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11  The immediate future of marijuana policy in the United States

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

There are many citizens of the United States who would argue that the current policy on drugs has failed, that a policy that postulates drug prohibition is no longer viable in this day and age and that the billions spent on drug control, particularly supply reduction and law enforcement are proof of this failure. This argument is made in very convincing fashion by the Committee on Drugs and the Law of the New York Bar Association (1994). Citing social, human and economic costs of the current 'no tolerance' policy and its failure to reduce drugs in the street, the call is made for a new policy, one that ends prohibition and acknowledges that drug abuse will always exist.

Supporters of an end to drug prohibition may (mistakenly) be heartened by the stance of the Clinton Administration. As stated earlier, the current Administration is taking a somewhat low profile with respect to illicit drugs. It does not appear to be a 'front burner' issue. The Office of National Drug Control Policy still exists but with significantly fewer staff than was true under the Bush Administration. This, however, does not mean the time is ripe for introduction of marijuana decriminalization laws. Indeed, given the mood and disposition of the Congress and the power of public opinion, quite the opposite is true.

The Republicans have the numerical advantage in both houses of the Congress, the House of Representatives and the Senate, for the first time in 40 years. A significant number of the new members and many continuing members were elected on conservative platforms that stressed a get tough on crime position, and the promise of new tougher crime measures. As such a new tough crime bill has passed the House and a similarly tough measure is now being considered by the Senate. While not specifically singling out marijuana, the bills impact greatly upon marijuana.

Within the House of Representatives the crime bill (HR 3) is titled 'The Taking Back of Our Streets Act' (FAMM, 1994-1995, p. 1). It sets a host of new mandatory minimum sentences by bringing under Federal Statute every crime committed with a gun (the gun need not be a part of the criminal act - merely present - as for example legally owned weapons in a house where marijuana is present); restricting habeas corpus as a viable remedy for illegal incarceration; and other restrictive measures. One most significant part of the House passed bill is the budgeting of $10.5 billion to the states for prison construction if they bring into effect truth-in-sentencing practices whereby offenders must serve 85% of their time before being eligible for parole. This is of particular interest since in all likelihood it would serve to increase the length of time marijuana offenders must serve in prison. A major effect of the bill should it be enacted would be to tempt states to engage in the construction of new high-security prisons and then fill them (New York Times, 1995).

The Senate's crime bill (S-3) is called the 'Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Improvement Act of 1995.' Among the 11 sections of the bill are 'new mandatory minimum sentences for selling drugs to minors or employing minors to sell drugs, selling drugs in a Drug-Free Zone, and using guns in a federal felony offense' (FAMM, 1994-1995, p. 2). Also found in the Senate bill is a repeal of the so-called safety-valve provisions with replacement by a new, highly restrictive safety-valve segment that puts significant onus upon the defendant in order to qualify for sentence reduction. Further, the Senate bill directs the U.S. Sentencing Commission to meet mandatory minimum sentences with respect to drug sentences. Should this directive become law, the Congress will, in effect, be dictating to the (supposedly) independent Sentencing Commission.

Several states are also either sticking with their 'get tough' philosophy or actually increasing their drug sanctions. In Virginia, Governor George Allen advocates a 10 year mandatory imprisonment for anyone convicted of transporting illicit drugs across the state line. A move in Michigan to ease life-without-parole sentences for some classifications of non-violent drug crimes failed to pass the state legislature. Illinois, which has mandatory minimums on some drug crimes indicates no disposition to ease the minimums. Due to overcrowding in its prison system, the state of Florida has had to release some inmates convicted of violent crimes in order to make room for those convicted of drug-related crimes.

The only exception to this trend is New York. Faced with the reality that 60% of its inmates have been sentenced for non-violent acts and 44% of new felons coming to prison each year are convicted of drug crimes, Governor George Pataki has gained the support of the New York legislature in reducing mandatory sentences for so-called small-time drug offenders so that emphasis may be placed on longer sentences for those convicted of violent crimes (Chapman, 1995).

Future direction of marijuana policy

In summary, the trends for the near future still speak to stern, unyielding law enforcement with mandatory sentencing being the rule and (often) individual courts having little discretion in their handling of an individual case. The proposed federal legislation together with the mood of 'get tough' on crime and drugs are indicators that those convicted of marijuana charges may not be treated gently by the system. Given the conservative mood of the people of the United States, the 'do the crime, do the time,' posture of the U.S. Congress and the current power and disposition of public opinion, it is most unlikely that any change in U.S. policy towards marijuana is imminent. Any movement towards a toleration or decriminalization policy would likely emanate from outside the country. It would probably take some type of harm reduction movement internationally with definite markers of success to persuade the U.S. to rethink its current policy.

Such movements have, however, occurred. The success of other nations with needle exchange programs - the markers being the reduction in HIV infection and hepatitis - has led the United States to at least be willing to evaluate needle exchange programs. As a result, several needle exchange programs were initiated in this country under local auspices and with the implicit understanding that enforcement authorities would not intervene in such programs. Federal law prevented (and still prevents) the federal funding of needle exchange programs. From a research perspective, however, the exchange programs can be evaluated using Federal monies with a view to ascertaining their degree of success or failure. To date, the success of needle exchange programs has been remarkable and it is conceivable that a shift in Federal policy could occur in the not too distant future, a shift that would allow the Federal funding of needle exchange programs. Realistically, it is not likely that marijuana tolerance will enjoy the same degree of success. The issues of the young using marijuana, the potential health consequences, the movement towards fitness and health, the conservative mood of the nation - all argue that marijuana tolerance is not likely to occur in the foreseeable future.


CHAPMAN, STEPHEN. 1995. 'Criminal Behavior,' Chicago Tribune February 9, 1995.

COMMITTEE ON DRUGS AND THE LAW. 1994. 'A Wiser Course: Ending Drug Prohibition,' The Record of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York Vol. 49, No. 5, June 1994, pp. 521-577.

FAMILIES AGAINST MANDATORY MINIMUMS. 1994-95. 'A New Year and a New Congress,' FAMM-GRAM Vol. 5, Issue 1.

NEW YORK TIMES, 20, February, 1995.

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