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The War on Marijuana: The Transformation of the War on Drugs in the 1990s

May 01, 2005
Ryan King and Marc Mauer
National analysis finds marijuana arrests constitute 82% of the increase in drug arrests for the period 1990 to 2002, which represents nearly half (45%) of the 1.5 million drug arrests annually.

Despite decades of discussion and intense media coverage, there remains considerable confusion regarding how the criminal justice system treats marijuana offenders.

This misunderstanding has catalyzed a contentious debate that has been characterized by disagreements about the appropriate legal status of marijuana, the suitable level of punishment, and the most effective distribution of institutional resources to address marijuana use. This has been coupled with a fundamental difference of opinion about the true dangers that marijuana use poses to American society. In light of international developments in which a number of countries have reduced punishment for marijuana use, as well as the growth in the domestic decriminalization movement culminating in local ballot initiatives and proposals to amend state law, the struggle over the appropriate criminal justice response to marijuana has become a key policy concern.

Drug war advocates such as John Walters and former Attorney General John Ashcroft have frequently remarked that the current criminal justice approach to drug abuse represents an efficient use of resources. Walters, the head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, has lamented that persons who claim that prisons are full of low-level drug offenders are incorrect and have misinformed the debate on drug policy.

In order to provide a framework for assessing the role of marijuana enforcement in the criminal justice system, we have conducted a national analysis of marijuana offenders for the period of 1990 to 2002. This includes an assessment of trends in arrest, sentencing, and incarceration, along with an evaluation of the impact of these developments on marijuana price and availability, and the use of crime control resources. Our analysis indicates that the “war on drugs” in the 1990s was, essentially, a “war on marijuana.”

To read the report, download the PDF below.

 
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