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A Fiscal Analysis of Marijuana Decriminalization



The fact that nearly one-fifth of all California felony arrests pertain to marijuana charges indicates that marijuana enforcement costs constitute a significant portion of all California law enforcement and correctional expenditures.

Legislative Analyst A. Alan Post, 1972 (Source la).


One of the first casualties of the explosion of drug arrests was the BCS Individual Reporting System drug offender study. By 1967, almost one-fourth of the entire BCS staff was involved in collecting drug statistics (Source 1d, p.1). As the number of arrests continued to rise, -the Bureau was forced to resort to a less accurate system of summary estimates rather than keeping track of thousands of individual offenders.

The Summary Reporting System began in 1968, ay-id involved making estimates of the total number- of drug offenders -from a 30 percent sample of police drug arrest summaries and rap sheets. When drug arrests again increased in 1969, the sample was reduced to 20 percent (Sources 2a, pp. :13-19; 2b, p.5).

This immediately downgraded the value and precision of the statistical database. A sample is an averaging device and doesn't give very reliable information on individuals, particularly in a rapidly changing population of drug offenders. Although a random sample can eflect the number of people arrested in each general drug category with some precision, characteristics such as the age, sex, race, or criminal record of offenders were progressively lost because there is no way to check, whether the sample accurately reflects these individual traits in the drug offender population as a whole.

Police summary forms had spaces -for the general offense charged-how many were arrested for marijuana--- but did not contain specific offenses, i.e. how many were arrested for possession. Thus frequency counts (like Table 2), which are very valuable to legislators -trying to determine the efficacy of specific laws, could no longer be obtained from the database (Source 1d, p.2). This meant, for example, that it was impossible to determine how many dangerous drug arrests were for LSD, or how many marijuana arrests were for cultivation.

Rap sheets -from the Criminal Identification and Investigation bureau, part of the sample used by BCS, are based on -fingerprints. Juveniles are often not fingerprinted: consequently juvenile drug offenders are under-represented in the sample. Another-- problem is that "booking offenses shown on rap sheets are poor indicators of actual offenses" described in arrest reports (Source 2c,., p.6).

In addition, use of the summary system led BCS to revise their data retroactively each year--- meaning, for instance, that the number of drug arrests in 1968 was reported differently almost every year after that (Sources 2a, pp.43-44, 46, 61-63; 2b and 2c, p.1; 2d, p.3; 2e, p.4). To solve this problem we have arbitrarily chosen the final estimates for these years given in Crime and Delinquency in California, 1972 (Source 3e).

Finally, USE- Of the summary system meant that some information previously reported had to be dropped. First to go were statistics on Federal offenses in California, which have not been collected since 1968. Then in 1972 BCS stopped reporting misdemeanor marijuana arrests; this continued until 1978, and injured the database permanently because the total number of marijuana arrests each year between 1972 and 1977 cannot be ascertained precisely.


California criminal justice agency expenditures rose by 67 percent -from fiscal 1967-68 to fiscal 1971-72 (Source 3e, p.62). Much of this extraordinary increase in enforcement costs must be attributed to the explosion in drug arrests, especially marijuana arrests (graph DRMJ6072).

Drug arrests were the prime contributor to sudden rises in statewide felony arrests. "Adults arrested for felony crimes increased by about 30,000 in 1969 over 1968, of which drug arrests accounted for 20,000, or about 67 percent of the increase. In 1972, total -felony arrests increased 11,000 over 1971, with drug arrests making Lip nearly all the rise..." (Source 3e, p.29).

Felony marijuana arrests were only 3.72 percent of all felony arrests in 1960. By 1972 over one-fifth (21.19 percent) of the felony arrests in California were for marijuana (Table 4: line 43 MJSPRD). Misdemeanor marijuana arrests were negligible, less than one percent of misdemeanors.

During this same five years (1968-72), -the number- of drug offenders increased by 96 percent compared to a 23 percent increase in non-drug offenders. Also, more drug arrestees were prosecuted; complaints filed by the police against drug offenders rose by 123 percent, compared to 34 percent for non-drug offenders (Source 3e, p.39).

The result was that massive numbers of drug offenders were funneled through police stations, county jails, lower and superior courts, and probation and parole departments each year. All the trends shown in the previous chapter continued, insofar as can be determined from the database: these offenders were mostly white, Mostly Young (19 to 20), and mostly arrested on felony charges of possession of marijuana (Source 2a, p.28).


ARRESTS          1960      1967      1968       1969      1970       1971       1972

FELONY	(42)    132379    203233    258740     299574    315232     332693     344762
Fel. Drug(40)   15768     48120     79221      106344   118314     119184      127699
% Drug/Fel      11.91     23.68     30.62       35.50    37.53      35.82       37.04
Marijuana (39)   4921     37049     47949       51414    64880      61199       73061
% MJ/Fel (43)	  3.72	    18.23     18.53       17.16    20.58      18.40       21.19
MISDEMEANOR(48)611458    717015    697514       770583  808518     806428      860158
Misd. Drug(46)   3497     13672     15517        16827   17850      18377       17889
% Drug/Misd.     0.57      1.91      2.22        2.18     2.21       2.28        2.O8
Marijuana (45)    234       465      2388        3762     4141       3398        3500
% MJ/Misd(49)    0.04      0.06      0.34        0.49     0.51       0.42         0.41
FEL & MISD.(54)743837    920248    956254     1070157  1123750    1139121      1154325
Total Drug (52) 19265     61792     94738      123171   136164     137561       145588
% Drug/FM        2.59      6.71      9.91       11.51    12.12      12.08         12.61
Total Marij (51) 5155     37514     50327       55176    69021      64597         76561
% MJ/F&M(55)     0.69      4.08      5.26       5.16      6.14       5.67       6.63

Source: MJSPRD and its Sources. Numbers in parentheses refer to MJSPRD lines.


The following is a brief summary of all previous studies of the costs of California marijuana law enforcement. In general, the- method of these studies was to apply cost-per-unit estimates to the number of offenders in each stage of the criminal justice process from arrest to final dispositions For greater detail, Consult Source

In 1968 Stanford law student, Lawrence Calof wrote the definitive first study of these costs. Taking the 1966 marijuana arrest and disposition data and applying fiscal 1967-68 budget -figures, Calof arrived at a "hybrid" estimate of $29,783,418.56 for -the 18,243 adult and juvenile marijuana arrests and the dispositions of 14,209 adult -felony offenders. This averages out to approximately $1,630 per arrest, or $2,100 per adult disposition (Source la, p.114; see Calof appendix).

To estimate the costs at each stage of the disposition process, Calof relied not only on published budgets, but also on numerous interviews with officials at each stage, and a sample of Los Angeles superior court dispositions. The interviews were necessary to form a realistic assessment of the amounts of time spent in the prosecution of marijuana offenders. Then he calculated the costs of taking a single offender through the system in Los Angeles, where more than 60 percent of marijuana arrests were made (Calof appendix).

Calof's study is especially valuable in reflecting the costs of adult felony prosecution before "The Wobbler" took effect. However-, Calof excluded the costs of juvenile court proceedings, and misdemeanor proceedings in lower- court----- because at the time these were insignificant Thus Calof's estimate must be regarded as conservative, a minimum figure.

His professor at Stanford Law School, John Kaplan, used the Calof method to calculate the 1968 enforcement costs in his book "Marijuana The New Prohibition" (1970). He arrived at a figure of about $72 million for the 50,327 marijuana arrests that year, with emphasis in adult felony dispositions for which the most information was available- (Source 4).

U.C. L. A. researcher William McGlothlin, using a variation of the Calof method, estimated approximately $43.1 million for the cost of 1969 marijuana dispositions. Dr. MCGlothlin excluded certain costs which Calof had included (appeals, state narcotics bureau, motions to suppress evidence), and used significantly lower cost/unit estimates for court dispositions and commitments (Source la, p.114). However, McGlothlin, not a lawyer, made no attempt to interview criminal justice agency or court officials about the actual costs involved at each stage, and his estimates are not as realistic as Calof's. As at result his cost estimate for 1969 is, in our opinion, much too low.

Tod H. Mikuriya, M.D., a consultant to the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse, estimated 1970 marijuana enforcement cost, at $106 million. This figure was obtained by multiplying Calof's estimate by the percentage increase in marijuana arrests in 1970 over 1966 (Source la, p.115).


Perhaps not coincidentally, a different method of assessing the costs Of Marijuana arrests for 1971 gave approximately the same $106 million figure obtained for 1970, even though the number of marijuana arrests in 1971 declined by 3,681 from the previous year (Source la, p.115; Table 5).

This new method was invented by Legislative Analyst A. Alan Post, and was based on the fact that the overwhelming majority of marijuana arrests are made by local police and sheriff's departments. "It was determined that approximately 25 percent of a police Officer's time is devoted to the detection and apprehension of criminals. Therefore, it was concluded that 25 percent of the county's law enforcement budget is expended on criminal activity. The percentage of total marijuana arrests of the total arrests was computed for each county. This percentage was applied to that activity. Thus, a rough approximation was constructed of what it Costs California County law enforcement agencies to effect marijuana arrests" (Source la, pp. 98-99 and letter from Wayne Knutila of BCS to the Moscone Committee Feb. 7, 1974, are appendix in Source 1).

This method revealed that in 1971, local police and sheriff's departments spent approximately $8.9 million at the arrest stage alone, an average of $138 per marijuana arrest. Using the same method, county law enforcement expenditures on marijuana arrests in 1972 were calculated at approximately $11 million, or $144 per arrest (Source la. P.99).

However these figures did not, include the costs of the California Highway Patrol, 63 per-cent of whose felony arrests in 1972 involved marijuana and other drug arrests. Adding CHP expenditures on marijuana arrests brought the cost per arrest to $166 in 1971 and $171 in 1972 (Source lap P.100).

Thus for 1971, using the Post method for arrest costs and taking into account a significant reduction in disposition costs caused by increasing use of The Wobbler and P.C. Section 17 (discussed below), total costs of marijuana law enforcement were calculated at approximately $106,859,808. The 1971 estimate proved comparable to the 1970 figure by a different method of calculation (Source la, pp.115-117). This is further evidence that the McGlothlin estimate for 1969 was too low.

To determine costs in 1972 for the Moscone Committee, two separate evaluation techniques were used. First, the Calof method was applied to the 1972 marijuana arrest/disposition statistics and budgets. This produced an estimate of $95,239,536 for 1972 (Source. lb).

The second approach was to apply the A. Alan Post arrest costs and Calof unit Costs to updated information, including revised correctional Costs, supplied by every major criminal justice agency in the state. This produced an estimate of $105,762,049 spent on marijuana Offenders by these agencies in 1972 (Source 1c).

The two different evaluation methods again produced comparable results-- $95 million and $106 million-- as total marijuana enforcement costs in 1972. We rounded this off to $100 million as an average. This estimate is conservative, a minimum figure, because it did not include the costs of 20,697 unknown adult dispositions, 84310 commitments from lower court, or any juvenile dispositions (Source la., p.113).


A close scrutiny of dispositions revealed that the major influence on reducing the fiscal costs of processing marijuana offenders through the courts had been Section 17 of the Penal Code. The number of adult felony marijuana offenders in lower courts increased sharply between 1969 and 1971, and by 1972 more (12,346) felony marijuana cases were disposed of in lower courts than in superior court (8,884). (Source la, p. 101.)

Nevertheless, superior Court dispositions nearly doubled from 1968 to 1971, because of vast increases in the number of arrests (Source 3e, p.40, and Table 5). It took three years for the "Wobbler" and Section 17 PC to relieve the congestion in superior court. 1972 at last saw a drop of over 6,000 superior court dispositions, largely attributable to -filing felonies as misdemeanors in lower courts (Source 3e, p.40).

This reduction in superior court costs is responsible for the slight drop in estimated enforcement costs in 1972 compared to 1971 (Table 6). Because off reduced superior court costs, We included McGlothlin's low estimate to indicate that the cost per arrest/disposition declined to $1,342 between 1969 and 1972, a considerable savings (Source la,, p.117).

However, in 1972 there was an unexpected jump of 11,000 more felony drug arrests, accompanied by a leveling off in lower- court dispositions. "After three years of sharp increases," BCS reported "this short boom in lower court terminations is over. The number of felony complaints terminated in lower courts in 1972 increased about 2000, or only 4 percent Over 1971 . The leveling-off of lower court terminations in 1972 may indicate that the use of P.C. Section 17b5... has -reached its full potential." (Source 3e., p.36).

Another problem presented itself when 1972 dispositions were examined. Of the 41,927 marijuana complaints filed in 1972, 8,884 were processed as felonies in Superior Court and 12,346 as misdemeanors in lower courts leaving a serious lacuna of some 20,697 complaints unaccounted for in the BCS record books. The apparent leveling off of enforcement costs at about $100 million a year might as easily be the result of not having information on the dispositions of 49 percent of the complaints filed, as of hypothetical savings from the use of P.C. Section 17 (Source la, pp. 101, 117).

In SUM, the "Wobbler" and P.C. Section 17 were political compromises of limited Success. Their main effect was to contain enforcement costs which would have been appreciably higher without them. By allowing most -felony marijuana possession cases to be processed in lower Courts without actually taking possession out of the felony category, congestion in the superior courts was reduced, with concomitant fiscal savings.

On the Other hand, as superior courts handled fewer (marijuana cases, lower courts handled many more than they had in the past, and lower-court costs began increasing as the number of marijuana arrests continued to rise. It became evident that simply re-shuffling offenders from superior to lower courts could mitigate, but would not solve, the cost problem.

As shown in Table 6 and graph COST6072, the costs Of marijuana law enforcement rose from about $8 million in 1960 to $100 million in 1972. It cost California taxpayers about $577 million to punish about 400,000 people between 1960 and 1972, an average $44.4 million a year. These estimates are conservative because they do not include costs of many adult dispositions or any juvenile dispositions (Source la, p.113).

Marijuana arrests increased tenfold between 1962 and 1967, while enforcement costs increased ninefold (Table 6). For the entire thirteen-year period from 1960 to 1972, marijuana arrests increased 1385 percent, while-, enforcement costs increased 1090 percent (Table 6).

And what was the result of these massive Cost increases? The Depar tment of Corrections informed the Moscone Committee that as of December- 31, 1973, there were 621 felons in state prison whose most serious commitment offense was violation of some law pertaining to marijuana. In Addition, there were 858 marijuana offenders on parole as of that date (Source la., p.109).

Thus Californians were spending $100 million a year to put about 1500 people in prison or on parole. This comes to more than $66,000 for each convicted adult felony offender.

One clear fact emerged from the weight of evidence presented to the Moscone Committee: despite all attempts to reduce them, the -fiscal costs of marijuana law enforcement continued to increase slightly or suddenly, year after year.


1960	5,155	$ 3,402,650	Calof- $1630	All arrests,
1961	3,794	6,184,220		prosecution,
1962	3,743	6,101,090		commitments
1963	5,518	8,994,340		handled as
1964	7,560	12,322,800		felonies.
1965	10,002	16,303,260		Avg. cost per
1966	18,243	29,147,418		arrest, $1630
1967	37,514	61,147,820		disp., $2100.
1968	50,327	$ 72,074,860	Kaplan    $1432	"Wobbler" and
1969	55,176	43,100,000	McGlothlin .- $ 7 8 1	P.C. Sec. 17:
1970	69,021	106,028,968	Mikuriya- $1536	Avg. cost/arr
1971	64,597	106,859,808	Extrapol-- $1654	1968-72 $1356
1972	76,561	100,000,000	Aldrich- $1306	1969-72 $1342

TOTAL 407,211 577,303,234   Avg. $1417.70 or $44,407,941/yr.

Source-. Moscone Report (Source la), p. 117.


(Moscone Report) California Senate Select Committee on Control of Marijuana (George Moscone, Chairman), Final Report, Marijuana: Beyond Misunderstanding. Sacramento, May 1974.

la. Michael R. Aldrich, Ph.D., "Fiscal Costs of California Marijuana Law Enforcement," Chapter 8, pp. 97-118. The quote from A. Alan Post is on page 97.

lb. Tod H. Mikuriya, M.D., Barbara Schneider, Michael R. Aldrich, and Gordon Brownell, "Selected California Statistics Concerning the Enforcement of Marijuana Laws ... February 13, 1974." An appendix to the Moscone Report.

1c. Michael R. Aldrich, Barbara Schneider, Tod H. Mikuriya, M.D., and Gordon Brownell, "Costs of California Marijuana Law

Enforcement: A Preliminary Study." Appendix, 7pp.

Id. Michael R. Aldrich, "Previous Marijuana Enforcement Cost Estimates," February, 1974. Appendix, 4pp.

le. Michael R. Aldrich, "Legislative and Reporting-System Changes

Relevant to Statistics on Cost of En-forcing California Marijuana Laws," Feb. 1974. Appendix, 5pp.

2. Drug Arrests and Dispositions in California. Sacramento: Bureau of

Criminal Statistics. Usually published a year after, date.

2a. D.A.D. 1968. 2b. D.A.D. 1969. 2c. D.A.D. 1970.

2d. D.A.D. 1971. 2e. D.A.D. 1972.

3. Crime and Delinquency in California. Sacramento: Bureau of Criminal

Statistics. Usually published a year after date.

3a. CD 1968. 3b. CD 1969. 3c. CD 1970.

3d. CD 1971. 3e. CD 1972.

4. John Kaplan, Marijuana-- The New Prohibition. New York and Cleveland: World Publishing Cc.., 1970, pp.29-30. For a full discussion of the processing of Marijuana offenders through the stages of the criminal justice system, see "Marijuana Laws: An Empirical Study of Enforcement and Administration in Los Angeles County," UCLA Law Review 15 (1968), pp. 1499-1582.


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