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Savings in California Marijuana Law Enforcement Costs Attributable to the Moscone Act of 1976‹‹ A Summary


*Curator, Fitz Hugh Ludlow Memorial Library, P.O. Box 640346, San Francisco, California 94164

**Psychiatrist and Substance Abuse Therapist, Berkeley, California

Journal of Psychoactive Drugs Vol. 20(1), Jan-Mar 1988, p 75-81

The fiscal costs of California marijuana law enforcement began to escalate dramatically in the mid-1960's as mainly young, White, middle class marijuana offenders flooded the criminal justice system, replacing older, nonWhite heroin addicts as the typical drug offenders in the state (Aldrich, Mikuriya & Brownell 1986: 2 9). California marijuana arrests leaped tenfold from 1962 (3,743) to 1967 (37,514), with corresponding increases in the number and cost of court dispositions, incarcerations in county jails and state prisons, and probation and parole caseloads. As shown in Table I, by 1972 there were approximately 76,561 marijuana related arrests, of which 73,061 were felony arrests, mostly for possession offenses. By 1974 there were nearly 100,000 felony marijuana-related arrests, and these comprised one quarter of all the felony arrests in the state (Aldrich, Mikuriya & Brownell 1986).

The steep increase in the number of arrests, the change in drug-offender characteristics, and the felony status of marijuana possession offenses led legislators to adopt several different strategies to cope with the burden on the criminal justice system. These included the so-called wobbler bills of 1968 and 1969, which allowed first offense felony marijuana possession cases to be disposed of as misdemeanors, and since 1972, a diversion program that has allowed charges to be dropped against first offenders if they complete a drug abuse treatment program (Brownell 1988). Nevertheless, the cost of marijuana law enforcement continued to explode, from approximately eight million dollars in 1960 to over $100 million a year in 1972 (California Senate Select Committee 1974: 97-118).

The crux of the problem faced by legislators was that possession of marijuana was a felony offense. In terms of law enforcement time, personnel. and budgets, a felony offense receives top priority. It frequently involves the following: investigation by more than one officer; transporting, booking, and incarcerating the offender; hours of paperwork; and time spent in court by the arresting officers. In addition, a felony drug offense often involves the use of paid informants, gathering evidence and reliable witnesses, a budget for drug purchases, undercover work, and interagency cooperation. Even under the wobbler provisions of Penal Code Section 17, a felony charge required adjudication in a lower court or Superior Court, investigation of the defendant's prior criminal record, and some expenditure of public funds at every level of the criminal justice system. This may include the cost of grand juries, public defenders, prosecutors, judges, bailiffs, juries, hearings, trials, appeals, county jails, state prisons, and/or probation and parole systems, depending on how each case proceeds (Aldrich, Mikuriya & Brownell 1986; Calof 1968).

On the other hand, a misdemeanor offense generally requires less expenditure of time and money by law enforcement agencies, can often be adjudicated in the lower courts, and punishes the convicted offender with a fine, probation or a year or less in county jail rather than a year or more in state prison. A citation offense, which involves giving the offender a ticket with a fixed bail that can be forfeited as a fine, is the least expensive offense category because it can be disposed of with a minimum of police work, court time, and cost to penal institutions (Aldrich et al. 1987).



Year Felony Misdemeanor Total
1972 73,061 3,500 76,561
1973 88,110 3,500 91,610
1974 99,597 3,500 103,097
1975 85,757 3,500 89,257
1974-75 92,677 3,500 96,177
1976 19,284 34,110 53,394
1977 17,262 34,110 51,371
1978 17,397 35,424 52,821
1979 19,263 32,796 52,059
1980 20,509 38,270 58,779
1981 20,771 43,791 64,562
1982 20,737 42,904 63,641
1983 19,920 43,803 63,723
1984 21,350 42,219 63,569
1985 24,182 43,181 67,363
1976-85 20,068 39,133 59,201
1986 19,938 30,105 50,043

*Data provided by Bureau of Criminal Statistics and Special Services, California Department of Justice. Misdemeanor marijuana arrest figures were not recorded by the Bureau between 1972 through 1977, and am estimated based an the averages of the three preceding years and the two following years. al. 19 87).

It was this reality-based observation of the criminal justice system that Senator George Moscone, then Majority Leader of the State Senate, recognized when designing California's unique misdemeanor citation system for possession of marijuana in small amounts (Brownell 1988; Aldrich et al. 1987; Atkeson 1987; Budman 1977; Uelman 1976; Moscone 1974); and it is this reality that is recognized in the present article in estimating the savings attributable to that law. At present (under the Moscone Act), almost all misdemeanor marijuana offenses are citable, and are valued in this article at one third the cost of felony marijuana arrests.


The methods utilized are presented in detail, with annual tables and formulas used for calculations, by Aldrich and colleagues (1987) and Aldrich, Mikuriya and Brownell (1986). California marijuana arrest data from 1960 through 1985, and court dispositions and law enforcement expenditures from 1972 through 1985 were obtained from the Bureau of Criminal Statistics and Special Services of the California Department of Justice.

Marijuana arrest expenditures were calculated according to a method designed by Post, a former legislative analyst (California Senate Select Committee 1974: 99) who determined that approximately one quarter of police time is devoted to the detection and apprehension of criminals, and therefore that arrest expenditures are approximately one quarter of all law enforcement expenditures. Weighting felony arrests at three times as expensive as misdemeanor arrests, the average cost per felony was determined by dividing total arrest expenditures by the number of felony arrests plus one third of the number of misdemeanor arrests. Felony marijuana arrest expenditures from 1972 through 1985 were then calculated by multiplying the number of felony marijuana arrests by the cost per felony arrest for each year. The average cost per misdemeanor arrest was obtained by dividing the cost per felony arrest by three, and misdemeanor marijuana arrest expenditures were calculated by multiplying the number of marijuana arrests by the cost per misdemeanor arrest for each year. Total marijuana arrest expenditures for each year were obtained by adding felony and misdemeanor marijuana arrest expenditures (Aldrich et al. 1987).

The method used to calculate the cost of marijuana court-disposition relies on a time-weighting technique used by the Judicial Council of California (1985: 112ff) to determine the number of judgeships needed in the state. This technique recognizes the wide variance in judicial time needed to dispose of different types of cases, and gives a much more accurate picture of court costs than would be obtained using raw numbers of dispositions. In 1984, for instance, criminal case dispositions were 10 percent of the total dispositions filed in Superior Court, but took up 33 percent of Superior Court time. For comparison, juvenile delinquency cases were also 10 percent of Superior Court dispositions, but took up only seven percent of its time (Judicial Council of California 1985: 114). Using time-weights and budgets published annually by the Judicial Council, the costs, of adult felony marijuana cases were calculated by ascertaining the costs of criminal cases in the lower courts and Superior Courts, along with court-related costs in each, for each year from 1972 through 1985, and then multiplying the result by the percentage of those cases that involved marijuana.

Annual prison and parole population counts and expenditures were obtained from the California Department of Corrections, dividing the latter by the former to determine per capita costs. These costs were then multiplied by the number of prisoners and parolees whose most serious convicted offense was a marijuana charge (also provided by the Department of Corrections) to determine the cost of marijuana-related prison and parole for each year from 1974 through 1985.

The State and Local Government Implicit Price Deflation a federal index available from the Commission on State Finance that is frequently employed by state agencies for budget analysis, was used to adjust marijuana law enforcement expenditures for inflation. Savings attributable to the Moscone Act (expressed in 1986 dollars) were calculated by subtracting the inflation-adjusted arrest, disposition, prison and parole expenditures for each year after the law took effect (January 1, 1976) from a baseline average of these expenditures in the two years (1974 and 1975) immediately before the law took effect.





  Arrest Court Prison Parole Total
Year ($) ($) ($) ($) ($)
1974 84,365,805 65,465,904 8,452,864 2,651,780 160,927,353
1975 75,904,642 71,169,219 5,874,307 1,430,688 154,378,856
1974-75 80,135,224 68,313,062 7,163,586 2,041,234 157,653,106
1976 28,986,982 38,176,161 3,489,715 1,260,906 71,913,764
1977 27,555,968 21,653,977 2,929,779 809,452 52,949,176
1978 29,206,147 19,640,441 2,398,912 583,091 51,828,591
1979 27,845,946 17,695,094 1,813,040 385,754 47,739,834
1980 32,411,715 21,058,801 1,702,828 303,944 55,477,288
1981 34,672,973 23,280,289 2,013,524 294,976 60,261,762
1982 36,571,996 25,253,457 2,462,066 304,487 64,592,006
1983 37,176,773 27,078,229 2,609,865 512,587 67,377,454
1984 38,905,293 26,042,226 4,628,388 666,623 70,242,530
1985 43,466,094 21,869,419 9,259,076 1,249,667 75,844,256
1976-85 336,799,887 241,748,094 33,307,193 6,371,487 618,226,661
1976-85 33,679,988 24,174,809 3,330,719 637,149 61,822,666

*From Aldrich et al. 1987.



As shown in Table I and Figure 1, the major ongoing effect. of the Moscone Act has been to reduce felony marijuana arrests from 92,677 a year (the average for 1974 and 1975) to 20,068 a year (the average for 1976 through 1985). Thus the new law saved California the expenses of 72,609 felony arrests every year for a decade, a 78 percent decrease in felony marijuana arrest expenditures.

At the same time, making possession a citable misdemeanor caused a tenfold increase in misdemeanor marijuana arrests: from an average of 3,500 per year for 1974 and 1975 to an, average of 39,113 per year from 1976 through 1985-an average increase of 35,613. However, these misdemeanor citations were not nearly as expensive to issue or to adjudicate. The cumulative effect was to cut total marijuana-related arrests by 39 percent over the decade: from an average of 96,177 for 1974 and 1975 to an average of 59,128 from 1976 through 1985-an average decrease of 37,049 marijuana arrests per year.

The massive reduction in felony arrests, in tandem with a more modest increase in misdemeanor arrests, produced an extraordinary drop in statewide law enforcement expenditures since 1976, as shown in Table IL Total expenditures (in 1986 dollars) on marijuana arrests, court dispositions, prisoners and parolees dropped from an average of $157.6 million for 1974 and 1975 to an average of $61.8 million per year during the following decade.

As shown in Table III, the State of California has saved nearly half a billion dollars ($464,552,353 or $46 million below 100 in 1980. This resulted in considerable savings in prison and parole expenditures (see Table II), which totaled more than $52 million since 1976 (see Table III).




  Arrest Court Prison/Parole Total
  Savings Savings Savings Savings
Year ($) ($) ($) ($)
1976 51,148,242 30,136,901 4,454,199 85,739,342
1977 52,579,256 46,659,085 5,465,589 104,703,930
1978 50,929,077 48,672,621 6,222,817 105,824,515
1979 52,289,278 50,617,968 7,006,126 109,913,372
1980 47,723,509 47,254,261 7,198,048 102,175,818
1981 45,462,251 45,032,773 6,896,320 97,391,344
1982 43,563,228 43,059,605 6,439,267 93,062,100
1983 42,958,451 41,234,833 6,082,368 90,275,652
1994 41,229,931 42,270,836 3,909,809 87,410,576
1985 36,669,130 46,443,643 <1,303.923> 81,808,850
1976-85 464,552,353 441,382,526 52,370,620 958,305,499

Average savings per year (10-year period): $95.8 million per year.

*From Aldrich et al. 1987. Court disposition savings pertain only to adult felony dispositions because data on adult misdemeanor dispositions are unavailable and juvenile division data are limited. Adult felony dispositions (1973-1974) were not reported to the Bureau of Criminal Statistics and Special Services, and estimates were made based on annual increments between 1972 and 1975.



  InPrison OnParole Total
Year (n) (n) (n)
1972 636 1,061 1,697
1973 668 873 1,541
1974 605 661 1,266
1975 317 462 779
1976 198 349 547
1977 146 216 362
1978 121 104 225
1979 101 85 186
1980 98 80 178
1981 119 69 188
1982 57 76 233
1983 191 167 358
1984 327 234 561
1985 618 396 1,014

*Aldrich et al. 1987. Data provided by the California Department of Corrections.


The State of California has saved a minimum of one billion dollars since 1976 as a result of making possession of an ounce or less of marijuana a citable misdemeanor instead of a felony. The present study considered savings from 1976 through 1985 in four major areas: arrest costs, court costs, prison costs and parole costs. Together they amounted to a total savings of $958 million, or nearly $ 100 million per year (see Table III). When these savings are compared with the $100 million a year being spent on marijuana law enforcement in 1971 and 1972 (California Senate Select Committee 1974: 118) and the average of $157.6 million spent in 1974 and 1975 (see Table II), it is evident that the Moscone Act has been quite successful in achieving two of its main objectives: (1) reducing law enforcement expenditures related to possession of small amounts of marijuana to a minimum; and (2) relieving an overwhelming burden on the state judicial system.

One billion dollars should be considered a minimum estimate of savings because the present study did not include savings in the cost of county jails, prosecutors, public defenders, probation departments, misdemeanor court dispositions, juvenile facilities, or peripheral parts of the criminal justice system involved with marijuana law enforcement, such as the cost of collecting statistics. Nor were any savings in expenditures by individual arrestees or defendants considered. Savings are also underestimated because the total amount of fines paid for marijuana misdemeanor citations is not recorded. If all of the 40,671 people cited for possession of an ounce or less of marijuana in 1985 (Aldrich et al. 1987: 1) paid a $100 fine, that revenue amounts to more than four million dollars per year.

When the Moscone Act was being debated in the California Legislature in 1974, some opponents of the bill were concerned that reducing penalties for possession for an ounce or less of marijuana to a maximum $100 fine would be a "green light" for drug users across the state (Budman 1977). Senator Moscone pointed out that a 1974 study of marijuana use in Oregon, which had passed a similar statute in 1973, had found no increase in statewide use of the drug, while 40 percent of the marijuana smokers surveyed reported a decrease in their use (California Senate Select Committee: 6-7). A follow-up survey in Oregon in 1976 (Drug Abuse Council 1977) showed only a very slight (three percent) increase in the number currently using marijuana, and also reported that fear of prosecution did not rank high as a reason for not using the drug in either 1974 or 1976.

More recently, Mandel (1987) analyzed street-drug arrests and emergency room episodes in California since the Moscone Act took effect, and concluded that łthe two best statistical indicators of drug use in California show that lowering penalties for marijuana possession did not cause a rise in the use of that drug.˛ Even though felony arrests for marijuana sale, cultivation , and possession for sale have been increasing in the past few years, California taxpayers are still spending only about half as much on marijuana arrests and a third as much on marijuana related court cases as they were in 1974 and 1975. There is no other crime in the state for which this can be said.

However, the recent increase in the number of marijuana felons in prison (see Table IV and Figure 2) bodes ill for the future in terms of statewide criminal justice expenditures. In 1985 this number zoomed up to 618, slightly above the 1974 level. This resulted in a loss of $1.3 million in 1985 prison and parole costs compared to 1974 and 1975 (see Table III), which indicates that increasing felony marijuana arrests and convictions will eliminate savings and drive marijuana law enforcement, court, prison and parole costs up again in the near future.

Either refelonization of the citable misdemeanor marijuana offenses or replacing the fixed penalty (a maximum $100 fine) of these offenses with alternative fine/jail/ prison penalties would obliterate the citation system and all the savings brought about by using this system. Either of these legislative changes would at least triple, and more likely quadruple, statewide marijuana law enforcement and criminal justice system expenditures in every future year (Aldrich et al. 1987).

It is rare that taxpayers can congratulate lawmakers for saving a considerable amount of money in any area of law enforcement The present system is accomplishing the purposes for which it was designed by Senator Moscone, by keeping possession of small amounts of marijuana a criminal offense while significantly reducing the criminal justice expenditures related to that offense.


The authors gratefully acknowledge the editorial assistance of Gordon Brownell, Michael Rossman and Jerry Mandel at various stages of this ongoing study, and wish to thank the following for providing the data on which it is based: Charlotte Rhea and Quinton Hegner, Department of Criminal Statistics; Joe Doyle, Administrative Office of the Courts; Linda Greule, Phyllis Marquez and Doug Jenks, Department of Corrections; and Greg Geeting, Commission on State Finance.


Aldrich, M.R.; Mikuriya, T.H. & Brownell, G.S. 1986. Preliminary Report: Fiscal Costs of California Marijuana Law Enforcement 1960-1984. Part 1: Arrest Costs. Berkeley, California: Medi-Comp Press.

Aldrich, M.R.; Mikuriya, T.H.; Brownell, G.S. & Mandel, J.S. 1987. Fiscal savings in California marijuana law enforcement, 1976-1985, attributable to the Moscone Act of 1976, with comments on the effects of refelonization and Senate Bill 218. Testimony to the California Senate Judiciary Committee, April 7.

Atkeson, L 1987. The California battle for marijuana. Unpublished manuscript

Brownell. G.S. 1988. Marijuana and the law in California: A historical and political overview. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs Vol. 20(l).

Budman, K. 1977. A First Report of the Impact of California's New Marijuana Law (SB 95) (Requested by the California Legislature). Office of Narcotics and Drug Abuse, California Health and Welfare Agency, January.

California Senate Select Committee on Control of Marijuana. 1974.

Final Report, Marijuana: Beyond Misunderstanding. Sacramento: California Legislature.

Calof, L. 1968. The cost of enforcing the marijuana laws in California. In: Aldrich, M.R.; Mikuriya, T.H. & Brownell G.S. 1986. Preliminary Report:Fiscal Costs of California Marijuana Law Enforcement

1960-1984. Part 1: Arrest Costs. Berkeley, California: Medi-Comp Press.

Drug Abuse Council. 1,977. Marijuana survey-state of Oregon. News release, Washington, D.C., January 28.

Judicial Council of California. 1985. Annual Report to the Governor and the Legislature. San Francisco: Administrative Office of the Courts.

Mandel,J. 1987.Are lower penalties a green light for drug users? Journal of Psychoactive Drugs Vol. 19(4): 383-385.

Moscone, G. 1974. SB 95 (Moscone) as amended February 4, Health and Safety Code. Marijuana Infractions. History, Digest, Purpose, Comment Sacramento: California Legislature.

Uelman, G.F. 1976. California's new marijuana law: A sailing guide for uncharted waters. California State Bar Journal Vol. 51(l): 27-86.



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