Has the War on Drugs been slowing down since the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington State last year? Are we witnessing the turning point of a 40year war on plants? Certainly some like to think so. However, if it’s a slippery slope, we have a long time before we begin the slide down.
There have been many improvements in state marijuana policies — more states have decriminalized the substance or have included conditional release for first time offenders. The federal policy has also somewhat improved with the announcement that the Department of Justice would not interfere with the new law in states where the drug has been made legal and with the review of federal mandatory minimum sentencing. Yet many states are still lagging behind the times.
In Louisiana, the law gives judges the authority to sentence an individual for procession of even a small amount of the drug, on their third offense, to 20 years in prison without probation. This is not just a guideline drawn up on a piece of paper — Louisiana resident Corey Ladd, 27, was sentenced last month to 20 years of “hard labor at the Department of Corrections” for possessing half an ounce. Similar draconian punishments are frequent.
While many studies have been conducted recently on national perception of marijuana laws, few studies have been conducted on specific states or regions except where ballot initiatives on the issue have been proposed. Nevertheless, there are several theories on why this is the case in states such as Louisiana, while several states over in Colorado, growing six plants won’t even earn you a slap on the wrist.
One argument brought forth by proponents of marijuana deregulation has been that it reduces crime, both because this type of nonviolent crime is excluded and because it reduces violent crime associated with the manufacture and distribution of the substance. If this is true, it raises a question of causality. Do states with high crime rates deregulate since they have witnessed the impact of exorbitant crime, or is it states which already have low crime rates that tend to decriminalize drugs?
As far as Washington and Colorado go, the second seems to be the case . Both are middle of the road in terms of violent crime, though Washington was ranked last year as the 7th most peaceful state by the Institute for Economics and Peace. This interpretation is further validated by the fact that Oregon, which also considered legalizing marijuana at the ballot box last November, is low on crime, running at 39th place on the 2010 violent crime index. Conversely, Louisiana is the most violent state in the union.
Furthermore, many have argued that drug deregulation decreases the number of people serving jail time for non-violent acts, thus freeing up tax money and space for violent criminals. Unsurprisingly, Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the nation, more then double that of the next highest state. While Oregon and Washington already ranked low on the 2008 list (30th and 41st), spurring on the idea that a low-crime area is more likely to support deregulation, Colorado ranks higher at 18th, and Mississippi, which has decriminalized pot, is in fifth place. The data here on the relationship between lax drug laws and incarceration rates is not always straightforward — but it does show a general trend that the two go together.
It's been argued that racial disparity plays a role in this policy. The War on Drugs, especially marijuana, disproportionally affects the African-American community even though other racial and ethnic groups consume the drug at equal rates. Should we therefore expect laws to be less tractable in more diverse states? Sure, Oregon, Washington, and Colorado are not particularly known for their diversity. However, it’s difficult to find any correlation much beyond this. Mississippi, which is just across the border from Louisiana, has the largest percentage of African-American residents in the nation. However, marijuana has been decriminalized there. Possession of up to 30 grams (just over an ounce) of pot is not classified as a crime, it doesn’t involve any jail time, and it carries a maximum fine of $250. Corey Ladd’s third offense, had it been committed in Mississippi, would have cost him between five days and six months in jail, instead of 20 years. Many African-American groups have recognized that the War on Drugs doesn’t help their communities, and have worked to deregulate the substance.
In analyzing the evidence, it seems that we come short on definitive conclusions on why certain states have a tendency to deregulate marijuana compared to others. Perhaps only the application of Public Choice Theory can help us here — when there are politicians in office who personally make it their duty to deregulate pot, legislation moves. If there aren’t any, then it simply doesn’t get introduced. The appearance of more structured and balanced laws is a sign of legislators understanding what drugs are. While Louisiana doles out the same punishment to any individual possessing any amount of marijuana that is less than 60 pounds, Mississippi offers five incremental levels, ranging from less than 30 grams to five kilograms.
A willingness to frankly address and deal with the problem of drug-related violence is perhaps the most important resource in ending the costly War on Drugs.