Cannabis Decrim & Cost Savings

Originally posted March, 2010. Cannabis was decriminalized in 2011 in Connecticut on a bill which I sought sponsorship for. SB1014 passed the Assembly, and was approved by the Lieutenant Governor in a Senate tie-breaking vote.  This was the first Decrim-by-Legislature since Alaska, in the 1970s. It was a historic, albeit shitty bill.

decrim

There have been numerous attempts in the State of Connecticut to remove the criminal penalties attached to cannabis possession. The majority of these proposed bills are focused mostly on the legalization of medical cannabis. While the efforts of medical cannabis legalization have faced similar gains and setbacks, it is the intention of this report to focus solely on decriminalization efforts put forth by the State Legislature.  In 1995, Proposed Bill 815 was referred to the Judiciary Committee of the Connecticut General Assembly.  This bill sought to decrease the penalty for possession of less than one ounce of cannabis by labeling it an infraction.  Individuals found in possession of cannabis would be “guilty of a violation and be fined fifty dollars.”[1] Two years later, a more comprehensive Raised Bill 6991 would come out of the Judiciary Committee.  Among many proposed substitutions and deletions revising State drug policy, this bill sought to decrease penalties for cannabis possession. The objectives of the bill were, first, to determine “substance use, abuse and dependency in the state, client and patient demographics and crime and criminal justice efforts.”

This bill started a new effort in gathering data for the purpose of policy reform.  Prior to this bill, the issue of cannabis was largely considered a moral political battle.  Raised Bill 6991 looked at the reality of the situation, acknowledging it as a health and judicial “problem.”  The bill also examined the use of prevention, treatment, intervention and education services as alternatives to incarceration and the use of criminal justice resources to address substance use and abuse. Also in the bill was language which questioned the appropriateness, quality and cost effectiveness of substance abuse services (including incarceration) administered by the Judicial Department.[2]  In 2003, legislation was proposed which looked to reduce penalties for simple cannabis possession. Proposed Bill 356 suggested that the penalty for possession of less than four ounces be an infraction, rather than a misdemeanor offense.[3] Another proposed bill that year, 5260, would have made possession punishable by a fine of $150 for a first offense and an additional $100 for each subsequent violation. Neither bill would be raised.[4] Attempts at decriminalization would be made in 2009 and 2010 with SB 349 and SB 476, both times on estimates that “doing so could save the state more than $11 million in law enforcement costs annually because far fewer people would be sent to state Superior Court to be overseen by prosecutors and probation officials…If marijuana users were issued a ticket that could be paid by mail, they would no longer need to go to court.”[5] Again like the others before it, these bills would die in committee.

Judging the cost savings benefit of the decriminalization of cannabis in Connecticut has faced one particular challenge. Any estimates would have to rely on accurate data to determine what the costs of criminalized cannabis are.  One could first look at the number of arrests for cannabis offenses to first realize a potential cost savings.  There is a hindrance, however, in that the Judicial Branch tracks offenses by statute number—and subsections in these statutes that deal with arrests for cannabis possession also include other illegal narcotics. According to an Office of Legislative Research (OLR) report in 2006, “to distinguish cases involving a particular drug, (researchers) would have to manually sort through every case on record.”[6] Examination of 2005 statistics, behind the three particular statutes that criminalize cannabis, provide a useful estimate of the volume of arrests and convictions, as well as potentiality in cost savings:

CGS § 21a-278(b) makes it illegal for a non-drug dependent person to possess with intent to sell any narcotic substance, hallucinogenic substance, amphetamine-type substance, or one kilogram or more of marijuana  According to the Judicial Branch, there were 1,885 arrests under this statute in 2005.

CGS § 21a-279(b) makes it illegal to possess or control a dangerous hallucinogen or more than four ounces of marijuana.  According to the Judicial Branch, there were 499 arrests under this statute in 2005.

CGS § 21a-279(c) makes it illegal to possess or control “any quantity of any controlled substance other than a narcotic substance” or “a hallucinogenic substance other than marijuana,” or less than four ounces of marijuana.  According to the Judicial Branch, there were about 9,724 arrests under this statute in 2005.

Recent numbers gathered by the Office of Fiscal Analysis (OFA) showed that there were 9,928 marijuana arrests in Connecticut in 2007, representing 7.0% of total arrests statewide.  The OFA concluded that approximately 33% of those arrests were for possession of less than one ounce of marijuana.  In their findings, OFA saw an estimated 2.3% of total law enforcement resources statewide currently allocated to crimes of cannabis possession. The agency posited a “theoretical savings to state and local law enforcement agencies…estimated to be $9.4 million, resulting from savings associated with police officers no longer having to process arrests for possession of less than one ounce of marijuana.” That number is quite large, but it is a potential savings.  More likely, this will free up resources for other police actions according to OFA, which concluded that a “savings in this amount may not be realized by state and local law enforcement budgets due to the fact that resources would most likely be reallocated, rather than eliminated.”[7] Besides the potential cost savings, decriminalization would have a positive public safety impact in that it diverts resources from the enforcement of a non-violent crime to other crimes of more pressing importance.

Criminalized cannabis poses a cost burden on the courts as well.  Data given in 2009 by OFA estimates a smaller number of Judicial cases under CGS 21a‑279(c).  They approximate 3,200 prosecutions (suspiciously down from the 9,700 in the 2005 data).  With these numbers, OFA assumes “that possession of less than 1 ounce of marijuana accounts for ¼ of these cases, then the annual cost to process them is estimated to be $400,000, including the salaries of 1 Public Defender, 2 State’s Attorneys, a portion of 1 Judge and support staff, expenses and fringe benefits.”  If using their 2005 statistics, the savings potentially exceeds $1,000,000.

Obviously, along with cost burdens of cannabis criminalization on enforcement agency and courts, there is a large fiscal impact on the State prison system.  The 2009 OFA data finds that there are currently 57 inmates serving a sentence where the controlling charge is CGS 21a-279(c) (possession of less than four ounces of marijuana).  At the time of the data collection, an additional 17 offenders were being held pretrial.  The OFA assumes that “possession of less than one ounce of marijuana accounts for ¼ of these individuals, and assuming an average cost of $44,895 per year per inmate (including employee fringe benefit costs) the resulting savings would be $831,000 per year.”[8] These figures average $121 per day, having risen since 2003 when estimates by the Department of Corrections and the Office of Fiscal Analysis concluded $76 and $96, respectively.[9]  These numbers will theoretically rise higher over time with inflation, further increasing costs to the State and taxpayer.

Savings could also be realized in the 1,300 probationers under supervision in the community who were convicted of possession of less than 4 ounces of marijuana as their primary charge.  In particular, the estimate assumes no trials on charges of marijuana possession and no prison terms due to marijuana possession.  The estimate presented here takes as given that current rules regarding parole and probation would remain in effect under decriminalization.  Under current rules, Harvard University Professor Jeffrey Miron notes, “regarding parole and probation, a positive urine test for drugs can send a parolee or probationer to prison, regardless of the original offense…these rules might change under legalization, implying additional reductions in government expenditure.”[10]  Miron also believes that “it is plausible these rules would be relaxed under decriminalization. This would keep non-trivial numbers of parolees and probationers out of prison, with substantial savings for the government budget.[11] The OFA again assumes that “possession of less than 1 ounce of marijuana accounts for ¼ of these individuals” and “the estimated, annual cost to supervise these offenders in the community is $424,000, including probation officer salaries, fringe benefits, expenses and contracted services.  Again, these are conservative estimates, and the potential savings rises greatly, depending on the data used and the interpretation thereof.

A 2009 report from the State Office of Fiscal Analysis (OFA) examining SB 349 and the budgetary impact of cannabis decriminalization concluded that “reclassifying these offenses as infractions would greatly increase the frequency with which fines are imposed and result in a net revenue gain to the General Fund.”  Through estimation of the number of current offenses, OFA reclassification of cannabis could yield “up to $320,000 in additional General Fund revenue each year.”  According to their report, the OFA felt that “potential savings…would continue into the future subject to inflation; the annualized revenue from fines would remain constant into the future since fine amounts are set by statute.” [12]

The true savings or revenue gain is ultimately impossible to determine at this point.  Harvard University Professor Jeffrey Miron believes that “estimated savings in criminal justice resources is likely the minimum savings that would occur under decriminalization”  He believes that “since most of the assumptions underlying this estimate err on the low side,”[13] there is a potentially large, unknown upside.  While the State might not “win the lottery” in decriminalizing cannabis, all indications point to both cost savings and increased revenue.  To best gauge the possible fiscal impact of decriminalized cannabis in Connecticut, it is helpful to look at the effects of other decriminalization efforts around the United States.

Decriminalization is hardly a new issue—During the 1970’s there was an effort in many states to decriminalize cannabis possession by imposing a civil fine rather than a criminal penalty. During that time, eleven states dropped criminal penalties. Recently, Nevada and Massachusetts decriminalized simple possession. As well, a number of municipalities have taken steps to decriminalize or “deprioritize” marijuana arrests.  Some states, such as Alaska, have “rolled back” their policies, criminalizing cannabis by referendum after a long period of legalization.  Currently, nine states have decriminalized possession of small amounts[14], and bills of similar nature are proposed in nearly every state in the country.

Professor Miron has researched the “Prop. 2” decriminalization measure in Massachusetts and his research is likely the most reliable, in terms of coverage of fiscal impact. Miron used methodology and data sets similar to that of OFA, and concluded that decriminalization of marijuana in Massachusetts would produce an annual savings in law enforcement resources of approximately $ 29. 5 million based on 2006 data.  Miron found that judges and lawyers generally estimated stand-alone arrests at 40% of marijuana possession arrests in Massachusetts. He also found, like OFA, that 33% was a reasonable estimate of the marijuana arrests that would no longer occur due to decriminalization. He also found that 5. 8% of all arrests in Massachusetts were for marijuana possession. He multiplied this by 33% to get 1.9% as the fraction of all arrests that would not occur and result in a savings of criminal justice resources under decriminalization.[15]

According to a 2010 OFA report reviewing Miron’s work, savings in criminal justice resources had three components: “a reduction in police resources because of the reduced number of arrests; a reduction in prosecutorial and judicial resources because of the reduced number of criminal applications, pre-trial hearings, and trials; and a reduction in correctional resources because of the reduced number of prisoners.” OFA notes that Miron found that only the first category was likely to be substantially affected by decriminalization due to the low numbers of people incarcerated solely for marijuana possession, which amounted to about 1.9% of the Massachusetts’ budget for police protection.  It is on that figure that Miron determined the $29.5 million figure. He concludes that this estimate may be low for several reasons, including the earlier mentioned assumption that parole and probation rules will stay the same.[16]

The City of Seattle adopted ballot initiative “I-75” in 2003. The initiative mandated that “the police department and city attorney’s office make the investigation, arrest, and prosecution of marijuana offenders the city’s lowest enforcement priority when the marijuana is intended for adult personal use.” Studied by University of Washington Professors, Beckett and Herbert, the two recently crafted a report which discusses the consequences and costs of marijuana prohibition. Their report concludes that “there were reductions in the number of referrals of marijuana-related incidents from the police department to the city attorney and also a reduction in people charged with marijuana possession by the city attorney, after I-75’s adoption.”[17]

The California decriminalization effort is discussed in a 1988 study published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs. Prior to the enactment of the Moscone Act in 1976, ¼ of the felony arrests in California were for marijuana, costing the state $100 million annually to process marijuana offenders. The act reduced possession of small amounts of marijuana from a felony to a new type of misdemeanor. The study’s authors, Aldrich and Mikuriya, concluded that California saved at least $ 1 billion between 1976 and 1986 as a result of this change. However, this study discusses the savings associated with “de-felonization” rather than outright decriminalization of cannabis.” [18]

Thus far, nearly every state has, at the very least, broached the subject of cannabis decriminalization in the committees of their legislatures.  Decriminalization—even legalization—are popular subjects that get mentioned both by word of mouth, and in the media. According to drug experts, cannabis is the most popular illegal drug, with nearly 42% of the population experimenting with the drug in their lifetime.  Proponents argue that decriminalization and eventual legalization are measures that have become necessary to “right the wrong” caused by prohibition.[19] In today’s budget crisis, regardless of one’s opinion of the drug itself, decriminalization of cannabis is perhaps the simplest legislation with the quickest turn around in cost savings and potential revenue.

 

[1] State of Connecticut, Proposed Bill 815, An Act Concerning Marijuana and Cannabis Type Substances (1995).

[2] State of Connecticut, Raised Bill 6991, An Act Concerning Drug Policy (1997).

[3] State of Connecticut, Proposed Bill 356, An Act Concerning the Penalty for Possession of a Small Amount of Marijuana (2003).

[4] Norman-Eady, Sandra, State of Connecticut, Office of Legislative Resarch. “2004-R-0264  Decriminalization of Marijuana.  February 25, 2004

[5] Keating, Christopher.  Hartford Courant “Judiciary Committee Votes To Decriminalize Marijuana.” March 31, 2009  http://blogs.courant.com/capitol_watch/2009/03/decriminalize-marijuana.html (Accessed April 23, 2010)

[6] Wolkoff, Adam, State of Connecticut, Office of Legislative Research.  “2006-R-0113  Marijuana Statistics.” February 6, 2006.

[7] Murphy, Michael, Alan Calandro, Christopher Wetzel.  State of Connecticut, Office of Fiscal Analysis. “OFA-1575, Fiscal Impact of reducing the penalty for possession of a small amount of marijuana.” March 23, 2009.

[8] Murphy, Michael, Alan Calandro, Christopher Wetzel.  State of Connecticut, Office of Fiscal Analysis. “OFA-1575, Fiscal Impact of reducing the penalty for possession of a small amount of marijuana.” March 23, 2009.

[9] Wolkoff, Adam, State of Connecticut, Office of Legislative Research.  “2006-R-0113  Marijuana Statistics.” February 6, 2006.

[10] Miron, Jeffrey.  Harvard University. “The Budgetary Implications of Prohibition.”(December, 2008)

[11] Miron, Jeffrey.  Harvard University. “The Effect of Marijuana Decriminalization on the Budgets of Massachusetts Governments” (October, 2008).  http://www.economics.harvard.edu/faculty/miron/files/decrim_update_2007.pdf  (Accessed April 23, 2010)

[12] Murphy, Michael, Alan Calandro, Christopher Wetzel.  State of Connecticut, Office of Fiscal Analysis. “OFA-1575, Fiscal Impact of reducing the penalty for possession of a small amount of marijuana.” March 23, 2009.

[13] Miron, Jeffrey.  Harvard University. “The Effect of Marijuana Decriminalization on the Budgets of Massachusetts Governments” (October, 2008).

[14] Norman-Eady, Sandra, State of Connecticut, Office of Legislative Resarch. “94-R-1089  Legalization of Illicit Drugs”  December 22, 1994.

 

[15] Norman-Eady, Sandra, State of Connecticut, Office of Legislative Resarch. “94-R-1089  Legalization of Illicit Drugs”  December 22, 1994.

[16] Soncia Coleman, State of Connecticut, Office of Legislative Research. “Criminal Justice Cost Savings Associated with Marijuana Decriminalization.” February 17, 2010.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[18] Norman-Eady, Sandra, State of Connecticut, Office of Legislative Resarch. “94-R-1089  Legalization of Illicit Drugs”  December 22, 1994. http://www.cga.ct.gov/2010/rpt/2010-R-0052.htm (Accessed April 22, 2010)

[19] Norman-Eady, Sandra, State of Connecticut, Office of Legislative Resarch. “94-R-1089  Legalization of Illicit Drugs”  December 22, 1994.

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