Unfortunately, Maryland Senate Bill 297 has been passed up this year. However, supporters will be back next year. Below is a testimony that was given by legendary activist Dan Riffle from the Marijuana Policy Project. I have always admired Dan’s work, and even though his testimony didn’t result in the approval of Maryland Senate Bill 297, I still feel it is important to pass along, as this is language that people can use in their states where bills are still alive (sorry for the formatting, PDF copy and paste!). It is also a good playbook for people to practice using in Maryland starting now, so that when the legislature gets going again next year, people will already be ahead of the curve. A big kudos to Dan Riffle for giving such a powerful testimony. Even though Senate Bill 297 wasn’t enacted, there is still a lot of progress as the result of the efforts of people like Mr. Riffle:
Good afternoon Chairman Vallario, Vice Chairwoman Dumais, and members of the committee.
This is the fourth time I’ve had the privilege of speaking to this committee this year, but for
those of you who don’t know me, my name is Dan Riffle, and I am a former prosecuting
attorney. I’m here representing the Marijuana Policy Project, the nation’s largest marijuana
policy reform organization. I left my previous job and came to MPP after spending hour after
hour prosecuting marijuana case after marijuana case with no appreciable impact on marijuana
use or availability in my community. After realizing what an abject public policy failure
marijuana prohibition is, I came to MPP so that I could speak to legislators like you and urge a
favorable report on legislation like Senate Bill 297.
When any policy maker looks at two different policies, I think the starting point should be a cost benefit analysis of the status quo and the competing choice. So let’s do that today. Let’s start with the costs of our current harsh penalties in Maryland – 90 days in jail, a fine of up to $500, and, perhaps most importantly, a criminal conviction.
Every year in Maryland, police make around 24,000 arrests for marijuana possession, with 90%
of those arrests being for simple possession,1 meaning they have no impact on marijuana’s
availability. I realize that the law was changed somewhat in this regard last year, but it remains a
criminal charge, so that’s still more than 20,000 cases clogging Maryland’s criminal justice
system every year just for simple marijuana possession. So, one cost is the enormous burden this
places on police, prosecutors, judges, and other court officials in terms of time and money.
For monetary cost, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) uses a simple
percentage-based calculation to determine the amount of criminal justice resources devoted to drug-possession arrests.
The method utilized by ONDCP is to (a) calculate the caseload
percentage attributable to marijuana possession cases, and (b) apply that percentage to total
criminal justice system costs. In 2011, there were 263,093 arrests in Maryland, meaning the
24,488 marijuana possession cases accounted for 9.3% of all arrests in Maryland. Excluding
corrections, since opponents to this bill will argue no one goes to jail for marijuana possession
anyway, the 2011 police protection and judicial/legal services budget in Maryland was about
$2.63 billion dollars, according to Maryland Department of Budget and Management data.2
Applying the ONDCP’s percentage-based cost estimate, that’s $245 million dollars dedicated
to enforcing simple marijuana possession laws every year.
In terms of opportunity costs, just charging a suspect, processing the evidence, filling out a
report, and, if necessary, testifying in court in a case like this typically takes at least two hours of
a police officer’s time. That’s more than 40,000 hours of police work devoted to enforcing these
laws and not to violent crimes. To give you some frame of reference, in 2011, the overall
“clearance rate” – the percentage of cases that ended in an arrest – for violent crimes in
Maryland was just 57%. The rates for some individual crimes were staggeringly low: for rape,
49%; for robbery, 36%, for breaking and entering, just 16%.3 Meanwhile, police found time to
make nearly 25,000 marijuana possession arrests.
Another cost is the disparate racial impact these laws have and the toll that takes on community
cohesion. Blacks and whites use marijuana at about the same rates — 11% for whites, 12% for
blacks.4 Yet while only 30% of Maryland’s population is black, in 2011, more than half of all
marijuana possession arrests in Maryland were of blacks.5 In fact, the marijuana possession
arrest rate for whites in Maryland is only 253/100,000, while for African-Americans it is
722/100,000. In other words, in Maryland, blacks are nearly three times more likely to be
arrested for marijuana possession than whites. Every time someone is arrested for marijuana
possession, the result for that family is a few hundred or thousand dollars in court costs and legal
fees instead of food on the table or a child’s education. When this impact is borne
disproportionately by the black community, it also results in a fissure in our communities.
I could go on about the costs, but my time is short, so let’s take a look at the benefits. Allegedly,
we prevent people from using marijuana. However, every year about a half a million people
report using marijuana in Maryland, 10% of them regularly.6 That means for every person we
arrest for marijuana, 24 others decide to use it. Not very successful. Meanwhile, over the last
decade, we’ve seen dramatic drops in teen cigarette and alcohol use, and we haven’t had to arrest
otherwise law-abiding adults to achieve that.
Every year the U.S. Government-sponsored Monitoring the Future Survey and National Youth
Risk Behavior Surveillance System Survey ask teens how easy it would be for them to obtain
certain substances. Every year, 80-90% of teens in Maryland report marijuana is either “easy” or
“very easy” to obtain – almost as high as the same number for cigarettes and alcohol for which
we don’t spend hundreds of millions of dollars arresting thousands of adults.
Another supposed benefit of prohibition has is to make marijuana undesirable, but it has also
failed in that regard. Marijuana is cheaper and more potent than ever before. THC levels are at
about 20% now, whereas they were less than 2-3% when we ushered in prohibition.
So, what about Sen. Zirkin’s bill? What are the costs and benefits? Well, there are no economic
or fiscal costs. We would instead save the hundreds of millions we spend now arresting and
prosecuting non-violent adults by handling these cases the same way we would a traffic ticket.
You might think one cost would be dramatic increases in use rates, particularly among teens to
whom this would “send the wrong message.” I urge you to take a look at the summary I’ve
attached to my testimony. It shows that criminal penalties have little to no association with use
rates. Compared to Maryland, use rates are higher in Vermont and New Hampshire, where
penalties are even more harsh, yet lower in Mississippi and Nebraska, where a first offense for
marijuana possession does not carry a risk of jail time. Let me re-emphasize that last point – the
policies Sen. Zirkin’s bill would enact are already on the books in places like Mississippi and
Nebraska. This is not a controversial or radical proposal. More to the point of what message this
would send to kids, the percentage of high school students who are currently using marijuana is
lower today in Colorado than it is in Maryland. This, despite the fact that marijuana is now fully
legal for any purpose in Colorado, and prior to November’s vote was de facto legal for more than
a decade prior due to a relatively open-ended medical marijuana law.
As for the benefits, we would save thousands of police man-hours, which could instead be
directed toward violent criminals and other real threats to public safety. We could also save
young people and other non-violent adults the shame and loss of potential that a marijuana arrest
and conviction brings. Most importantly, we would no longer be spending millions of taxpayer
dollars enforcing an unenforceable law intended to prevent adults from using a substance
objectively less harmful than alcohol.
Thank you for your time, and please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any questions or if
there’s any further information I can provide.
Dan Riffle is a Lawyer, and Deputy Director of Government Relations at the Marijuana Policy Project.