California’s War on Marijuana: A Costly, Failed War

  • According to California’s Attorney General, there were 13,434 felony marijuana arrests in California in 2012.
  • Nearly 500 inmates are in state prison for marijuana offenses, and many more are in county jails and federal prisons. Blacks are five times more likely to do time for marijuana crimes than are whites. The cost of marijuana enforcement in California can be estimated at at least $200 million yearly in court, jail and prison expenses.
  • The California Board of Equalization reports that the state is collecting approximately $100 million in sales taxes from legal medical marijuana collectives, confirming an economic analysis from California NORML.
  • Californians consume about $3 – $6 billion worth of marijuana yearly. It is estimated that a legally taxed and regulated market could generate over $1 billion in direct tax revenues, and billions more from spin-off industries like tourism.
  • The war on marijuana has disrupted the peace of our wilderness and driven the market into the hands of criminal dealers and narco-traffickers.
  • Marijuana prohibition has also deprived us of an economically valuable crop, cannabis hemp, a productive source of oil, fiber, protein and biomass that is now being grown for research in the U.S.
  • California’s Failed War on Pot: the Historical Record

    • California first outlawed cannabis or “Indian hemp” in 1913, before “marijuana” was publicly known (History). After being prohibited, marijuana use spread from a mere handful to millions of Californians, and over 1,850,000 marijuana arrests have been recorded in the state.
    • Following the popularization of marijuana in the sixties, enforcement
      became so costly that the state “decriminalized” possession from a felony to a
      misdemeanor in 1976. The number of marijuana arrests and felonies promptly
      plummeted, saving the state an estimated $100 million per year (Source: Michael Aldrich and Tod Mikuriya, “Savings in California Marijuana Law Enforcement Costs Attributable to the Moscone Act of 1976 — A Summary, Journal Of Psychoactive Drugs 20(1) Jan-Mar 1988).

    • In 1983 the state launched the CAMP (Campaign Against Marijuana Planting ) helicopter eradication program to stop widespread cultivation in Northern California’s “Emerald Triangle.” The price of marijuana doubled, and cocaine took its place as the most popular illicit drug, leading to the disastrous crack epidemic.
    • In 1990 the California Research Advisory Panel recommended that personal possession and cultivation of marijuana be made legal. The panel, consisting of pharmacological experts charged with overseeing controlled substances, stated:

    “An objective consideration of marijuana shows that it is responsible for less damage to society and the individual than are alcohol and cigarettes.”

    • California became the first state to re-legalize medical marijuana when voters approved Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use Act of 1996. Contrary to the predictions of opponents, who warned that Prop. 215 would “effectively legalize” marijuana and encourage teen drug abuse, marijuana arrests have continued to climb since passage of Prop. 215, while the level of youth marijuana use in California stabilized or slightly declined to a level below the national average. See data on youth use.


    • The war on pot is a crime creation program. It makes criminals of millions of otherwise law-abiding Californians and creates a multi-billion dollar illicit market for criminal dealers and smugglers.
    • The war on pot has not controlled drug abuse. The modern drug problem entirely postdates the criminalization of marijuana.
    • California’s marijuana decriminalization law has been a success: it has saved taxpayers over $1 billion in enforcement costs, with no adverse impact on drug abuse.
    • Official studies have consistently backed decriminalization, including the National Academy of Sciences (1982), the Presidential Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse (1972), and the state Research Advisory Panel (1990).
    • Marijuana legalization works. In the Netherlands, where sale of cannabis has been de facto legalized through coffee shops, marijuana and hard drug abuse are lower than in comparable prohibitionist countries, including the U.S.

    Also see:

    Cal. NORML Estimates 750,000 – 1,125,000 Medical Marijuana Patients in California (May 2011)

    Marijuana Legalization Could Yield California Taxpayers Over $1.2 Billion Per Year (October 2009)

    California Arrest and Prisoner Data

    CAMP data

    See 2008 version of this page