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Would Legalizing Marijuana Cut Law Enforcement Costs?


Aired 10/8/10

Supporters of Proposition 19 say legalizing and regulating marijuana would save debt-plagued California hundreds of millions of dollars in public safety costs. But, could it?

— Supporters of Proposition 19 say legalizing and regulating marijuana would save debt-plagued California hundreds of millions of dollars in public safety costs. But, could it?

Proposition 19 supporters say California’s overflowing prisons are partially ...
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Above: Proposition 19 supporters say California’s overflowing prisons are partially burdened by marijuana offenders, but less than 1 percent of the state’s inmates are serving time for marijuana charges alone.

Richard Lee has spent years working to legalize marijuana. He owns a pot dispensary and runs a marijuana cultivation school in Oakland. He co-wrote Proposition 19 and has thrown $1.5 million of his own money into the effort to get it passed.

Lee was paralyzed from the waist down in a 1990 accident. A year later he was learning about the medical use of marijuana for people with spinal cord injuries. His political fervor was born around that same time one night in Houston.

“I was the victim of a carjacking and then the police took a long time to respond and that made me as mad as the carjacking," Lee said. "So, I started thinking about how the police were wasting their time looking for people like me instead of the real criminals. And, so that’s how I got started in working toward ending cannabis prohibition.”

ID you ask local law enforcement officials, they say they are focusing on real criminals. It just so happens that some of those real criminals happen to have marijuana on them, they said.

San Diego Sheriff Bill Gore says there isn’t a focus in his department on finding and arresting small-time marijuana users.

“There could have been 20 or 30 years ago," Gore said. "But those days are long gong. You’re not going to see people arrested for smoking a joint walking down the street. They will be cited in most cases. What our department focuses on, as does almost every other law enforcement agency, I’m sure, in the county, focuses on organizations that are selling drugs and distributing drugs.”

Inmates whose primary charge is a marijuana-related offense make up less than...
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Above: Inmates whose primary charge is a marijuana-related offense make up less than 1 percent of the county jail populations in the state's three largest counties. tells visitors that the state stands to save hundreds of millions of law enforcement dollars if the proposition is approved. The site points to California’s 61,000 marijuana arrests and 60,000 unsolved violent crimes in 2008 as proof of misplaced priorities.

But, prison stats seem to back the sheriff. In the state’s prisons people incarcerated for marijuana charges alone – and that’s all marijuana charges: possession, transport and sale – make up less than 1 percent of the population.

They also make up a small portion of the county jails populations in the state's three largest counties.

During one day in September there were about 4,300 people in San Diego County jails. Just over 200 were there for marijuana charges alone. Only one person’s primary charge was possession of less than an ounce of pot. And that person was likely in custody because of something like an outstanding warrant.

That was the case with all 10 people in custody in Los Angeles for possessing less than an ounce of marijuana on another day in September. Out of the more than 16,000 people in Los Angeles County jails that day, just over 80 had primary charges related to marijuana.

According to a paper published by the RAND Corporation earlier this year, some pro-legalization groups overestimate potential law enforcement cost savings from the legalization of marijuana. The paper's author, Jonathan P. Caulkins,found one reason for that overestimation was that researchers assumed equal costs for every arrest.

“Most of the marijuana possession arrests come about because of other activities," said Caulkins, a professor of public policy at Carnegie Mellon University. "It could be something like a traffic stop, but it’s not that there are lots of police working eight hours a day trying to hunt down marijuana users the way that there really are narcotics detectives who do work all day long trying to arrest cocaine and heroine dealers.”

Right now people caught with small amounts of pot don't get taken to jail if they can produce a valid ID and have no outstanding warrants. They get ticketed and have to appear in court. These marijuana misdemeanor cases accounted for just 1,700 of the more than 25,000 cases the San Diego City Attorney's office has processed this year, according to Andrew Jones, assistant city attorney in the criminal division.

That process will change in January even if Prop. 19 doesn’t pass. Possessing less than an ounce of marijuana will become an infraction under a new law the governor signed last week. People caught with less than an ounce of pot will be fined $100. If they want to contest the fine they’ll do it in a civil court, just like a traffic ticket.

People who think legalizing pot will reduce the strain on the state’s criminal justice system by taking marijuana out of the black market will likely be disappointed if Prop. 19 passes, Caulkins said.

“One big hope of legalization is that you’ll shrink these black markets and get rid of all kinds of black market-related crime," he said. "The disconnect there is that the vast majority of the nasty violence and street markets and so on is not from marijuana, that’s from the other drugs. There isn’t really all that much marijuana-related crime even now that it’s illegal.”

Police officers may have been going after small-time pot users when Richard Lee started his campaign to legalize marijuana 20 years ago. But, it doesn't look like they are anymore.

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Avatar for user 'ConservativeChristian'

ConservativeChristian | October 8, 2010 at 6:28 a.m. ― 6 years, 5 months ago

Jesus said to treat other people the way we would want to be treated. I know I wouldn’t want my kid to go to jail with the sexual predators, or my aging parents to have their house confiscated and sold by the police, over a little marijuana.

Let’s change the world. Let’s get registered and vote.

Voter registration for California (deadline: October 18)
w w w . .
(just fill out the form and mail it in).

California request a ballot by mail (deadline: October 26):
w w w . .

To vote early (like, Today!) contact your county election official at
w w w

Other states: Google your state name and the phrase, voter registration.

Students can usually register as a citizen of either your hometown or your college residence town. Share the voter registration info through your student newspaper, twitter, etc.

Five minutes. Register. Vote. Change the world. We can do it right now.

Pass it on

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Avatar for user 'ConservativeChristian'

ConservativeChristian | October 8, 2010 at 6:32 a.m. ― 6 years, 5 months ago

The article gives a misleading view of the new "infraction" law in California. The new "infraction" law will still put people in prison for marijuana.

It does not provide for any legal production of marijuana, so all the drug gangs will keep getting rich and buying guns.

Anyone growing even one single marijuana plant in their back yard can be sent to prison, and their house can be confiscated and sold by the police, and their kids can be taken away and put into "the system."

Is this really the way we want to treat our neighbors, as a Christian nation?

Register. Vote. Change things.

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Avatar for user 'Cann_Do'

Cann_Do | October 8, 2010 at 6:37 a.m. ― 6 years, 5 months ago

This article by Kyla Calvert has blatantly NEGLECTED to inform the reader that a major research report has JUST come out in the past two weeks that clearly describes the law enforcement costs of Cannabis Prohibition at the state and federal level.

Did Kyla Calvert tell you about the renowned study out of the Cato Institute done by an MIT-trained Harvard Economist? NO!

Why didn't Kyla Calvert tell you, dear reader, about the reputable study done which predicts BILLIONS of dollars of savings fro California if we pass Prop 19?

Does Kyla Calvert have an agenda to support prohibition? Otherwise, why would she cover up the truth of a MAJOR, published report that got much news coverage? Why would she only report law enforcement's pro-prohibition viewpoint?

It is shameful that Public Broadcasting Service would publish one-sided prohibitionist propaganda. Here is the other side that Kyla Calvert covered up with yellow journalism.

The Harvard economist, Dr. Jeffrey Miron, drew VERY different conclusions about the budgetary consequences of California's Cannabis Prohibition than did Kyla Calvert. Look at Kyla Calvert's qualifications on the issue, then look at the economist's:

"Jeffrey A. Miron is a senior lecturer in economics at Harvard University and a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. Professor Miron earned his Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and chaired the economics department at Boston University prior to joining the Harvard faculty."

Hmmm... ok. So who do we believe? Here are the conclusions of the Cato Institute's extensive analysis... something that Kyla Calvert's few phone calls to local cops could never replicate.

Abstract: "This report estimates that legalizing drugs would save roughly $41.3 billion per year in government expenditure on enforcement of prohibition. Of these savings, $25.7 billion would accrue to state and local governments, while $15.6 billion would accrue to the federal government. Approximately $8.7 billion of the savings would result from legalization of marijuana and $32.6 billion from legalization of other drugs. The report also estimates that drug legalization would yield tax revenue of $46.7 billion annually, assuming legal drugs were taxed at rates comparable to those on alcohol and tobacco. Approximately $8.7 billion of this revenue would result from legalization of marijuana and $38.0 billion from legalization of other drugs."

Do not buy Kyla Calvert's spin. Trust the experts.

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Avatar for user 'Cann_Do'

Cann_Do | October 8, 2010 at 6:38 a.m. ― 6 years, 5 months ago

This article is completely misleading. _____________

Maybe users will not go to jail now with the the Governator signing the decriminalization, but that is not enough: We need full legalization! ________________

Where do you expect the millions of Californians to GET their decriminalized cannabis. __________________

Effectively legalizing USE, while simultaneously criminalizing methods of production, storage, transportation and sales is ludicrous. ______________

So, now, even more users will be free to carry and use cannabis, but they CANNOT buy it? In this situation, the Mexican Cartels get even stronger!

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Avatar for user 'daveed'

daveed | October 8, 2010 at 7:39 a.m. ― 6 years, 5 months ago

Calculating costs from arrests or using prison or jail occupants is not enough. There are huge cost associated with the investigations of marijuana "drug dealers" which often means dispensaries that the police don't agree with. So it's important to note that prop 19 will put an end to raids (like the one just recently) that involve multi-agency task forces. When ever you see these raids, and look at the manpower involved, you realize they cost millions each. Professor Caulkins didn't mention that. This is what the police and prosecutors want to protect. The surveillance, the planning, and the raid itself. Now that's fun and provides great promotional opportunities. But they cost a lot and waste achieve nothing. But one mans costs (taxpayer) is another mans benefit (law enforcement).

We need to put Public safety before government jobs - vote yes!

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Avatar for user 'FredFlintstone'

FredFlintstone | October 8, 2010 at 9:03 a.m. ― 6 years, 5 months ago

Daveed - right on the money, man.

AND - not all benefits/savings will be monetary. People will have their civil rights restored. Streets will be safer due to elimination of prohibition violence.

Chances are police and court budgets won't change. What will happen is that they will divert their energies to more important issues which will keep the public SAFER - like prosecuting violent crimes.

Calvert also ignores a logical progression to ending all drug prohibitions which would empty out our prisons and make room for violent felons - making society SAFER. As LEAP officers ask, who do you want selling the most dangerous drugs known to mankind? You have three choices: (1) the government; (2) private industry; or (3) CRIMINALS. What drugs do you want 13 year old kids selling? They exclusively sell the drugs we prohibit. Ever buy cigarettes or booze from a 13 year old? Of course not. Nobody has.

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Avatar for user 'ThatwoodBTelling'

ThatwoodBTelling | October 8, 2010 at 9:10 a.m. ― 6 years, 5 months ago

This is a very misleading use of statistics. The author states that the percentage of state prison population in for marijuana charges alone is 1%. Her next paragraph is this: "They also make up a small portion of the county jails populations in the state's three largest counties." And how does that break down for two of those three (she doesn't give stats for the third)? 200 primarily pot arrestees out of a total jail population of 4300 for San Diego, and 80/16000 for L.A. What are these in terms of percentages, rounded up to the nearest whole number? San Diego= 5%, L.A.= 0.5%.

First of all, that's a huge difference, and averaging such widely divergent numbers as these is as meaningless as saying that in a neighborhood where nine households earn $20,000 and one earns $2,000,000, the average household income is $118,000! If averaging doesn't give you an idea of what's typical, then another method of analysis should be used.

Secondly, the author has simply dismissed the difference between the state's pot incarceration percentage (she says it's <1%) and that of San Diego County's jails, which is close to 5%. Sure, 1% sounds pretty insignificant ... but is 5% also insignificant? You be the judge.

I'm going to give the author the benefit of the doubt and say that this reporting is just the result of a general innumeracy in our society, and not an intentional effort to manipulate the facts.

KPBS: You may want to start running stats past one of the statisticians on campus before you just start tossing numbers around in your stories.

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Avatar for user 'FredFlintstone'

FredFlintstone | October 8, 2010 at 9:16 a.m. ― 6 years, 5 months ago

The US arrests almost a million people every year for possession of marijuana. This figure has been steadily climbing. Calvert's implication that this isn't costing our country billions of dollars yearly is outrageous. But thank you, Calvert, for arguing that marijuana users shouldn't be imprisoned. Which implies that they have the right to PURCHASE marijuana. Which would also mean that the SALE of marijuana should be legal. So which is it Calvert? You can't have your cake and eat it, too.

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Avatar for user 'PabloKoh'

PabloKoh | October 8, 2010 at 9:32 a.m. ― 6 years, 5 months ago

"....incarcerated for marijuana charges alone – and that’s all marijuana charges: possession, transport and sale"

That is not ALL marijuana charges, you forgot (I hope) cultivation. If you grow 1 plant you will be charged with a felony with penalities of 16-36 months. Please add these numbers to your misleading statistics.

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Avatar for user 'mjs123'

mjs123 | October 8, 2010 at 9:44 a.m. ― 6 years, 5 months ago

Why do they ban trans fats?
Why do they ban toys in kids meals?
Why do they ban the theory of evolution in schools?
Why do they ban creationism in schools?
Why do they ban Darwin from class?
Why is reading Huckleberry Finn banned from schools?
Why are cell phones banned and texting while driving?
Marijuana people talks about freedom but there are so many other things banned in many parts of the USA.
Is there an UNDERGROUND sales and trafficking of food with trans fats going on? NO. Because trans fats is not addicting. Face it. Marijuana is addicting and people depend on it that's why there is too much trafficking and use of this.
Why is the weight-loss herb ephedra banned? Really, where is our freedom?
You know that marijuana is also linked to heart problems, brain hemorrhage, aneurysm, stroke, short-term memory loss, paranoia and schizophrenia.

Ephedra should not be banned!!!
Where are the underground trafficking of ephedra? Why isn't any trafficking this weight-loss herb?
Oh, because it is not addictive.

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Avatar for user 'AlansK'

AlansK | October 8, 2010 at 10:33 a.m. ― 6 years, 5 months ago


Please cite the law that prohibits you from possessing foods with trans fats or admit your argument is not an honest one.

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Avatar for user 'mjs123'

mjs123 | October 8, 2010 at 11:07 a.m. ― 6 years, 5 months ago

AlansK, you are all over spamming on this Prop 19 and you do not do your own research? Shame. Your pot does cause short-term memory loss.

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Avatar for user 'AlansK'

AlansK | October 8, 2010 at 11:25 a.m. ― 6 years, 5 months ago


Yes, I make many posts on the internet arguing in favor of legalization, It's called freedom of speech. Yes, cannabis may cause some short term memory loss when under the influence, it does make it hard to learn new things while you are using but long term affects of moderate use are negligible. Look at Willie Nelson, he's in his 70's and can still remember his songs, for one example.

Now, back to your argument. Please cite the law that says you can't possess foods containing trans fat or admit that your argument is not honest. Haven't you heard? Honesty is the best policy.

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Avatar for user 'mjs123'

mjs123 | October 8, 2010 at 12:30 p.m. ― 6 years, 5 months ago

Trans Fat makes fast food delicious. So why can't fast food companies and bakeries smuggle trans fatty items in their restaurants to make food delicious so they have lots and lots and lots of customers. Just how the drug cartels have lots and lots and lots of customers.
Why? Why? Why? Why the trans fat ban? Why can people lace brownies with marijuana but not trans fats? Why?

Search the Net
"The bill to ban trans fats in California was introduced by Tony Mendoza, a California Assembly Member who won election in 2006. Tony Mendoza is a former teacher who proposed the ban after seeing so many overweight students. The bill was his first legislative act.
On March 6th, 2007, the California Assembly Committee on Health held a hearing on the bill, and the bill was approved by the Committee on Health.
On June 27th, 2005, the California Assembly passed the bill by a vote of 42 to 27, and this was followed by a vote by the full California Senate. On 25 July, 2008 the bill signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, banning restaurants and other food establishments from using oils, margarines and shortenings containing trans fats."

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Avatar for user 'AlansK'

AlansK | October 8, 2010 at 12:56 p.m. ― 6 years, 5 months ago

@mjs123, can you possess foods containing trans fat in the privacy of your own home? Yes, you can. The police won't arrest you for having trans fat or serving it to your friends.

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Avatar for user 'mjs123'

mjs123 | October 8, 2010 at 1:29 p.m. ― 6 years, 5 months ago

Restaurants and bakeries should have the FREEDOM to serve food containing trans fats. It is up to the customers to decide whether to buy those food with trans fats or not. It is the customers' BODIES and they have control of their bodies. You folks, see where this is going.

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Avatar for user 'AlansK'

AlansK | October 8, 2010 at 1:35 p.m. ― 6 years, 5 months ago


Well, I agree that restaurants and bakeries should have the freedom to serve food containing trans fats so long as the customers know what they're buying.

Now, how about agreeing with me that citizens should be allowed to grow and use cannabis on their own property?

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Avatar for user 'jmccann46'

jmccann46 | October 10, 2010 at 1:18 a.m. ― 6 years, 5 months ago

This a skewed view at best. For the sake argument lets agree that the actual savings are marginal for a moment. OK..fine; But if we convert this prohibition into tax revenue along the same lines as the alcohol business any money saved in public safety and the courts is just gravy. Has anyone heard of any new tax revenue proposals that could have the impact that this would? Its not religious. Its not emotional. Its not about right and wrong. Its just economics. There is a market for these products that will support significant taxation at a time where every branch of government is underfunded and loosing revenue.

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Avatar for user 'Leonard Krivitsky'

Leonard Krivitsky | October 11, 2010 at 9:56 a.m. ― 6 years, 5 months ago

Cannabis is less physically addictive than caffeine, while the so-called "gateway drug" theory is a complete fantasy, and it was just recently called "half-baked" as a result of a scientific study. CNN reported that Cocaine use has dropped sharply, by 30% since 2002, which is really good news. I worked in addiction medicine for years, and this is what I can advice on the matter: Any suppression of Cannabis use will be immediately followed by an increase in alcohol/hard drug/prescription drug abuse! You don't believe me? Then maybe you will believe the Big Alcohol lobby that is financing the Cannabis Legalization opponents for exactly this reason. Right now Cannabis is just simply perceived as a much safer alternative to alcohol/hard drugs, which is precisely how it should be perceived. To have a society in which there is NO psychoactive substance use is an illusion, and it will be good for our government to realize this. So then, it becomes a matter of "safer choices", just like with the sex education. And Cannabis is, without a shadow of a doubt, a much safer choice than alcohol or hard drugs! Just very recently a research study in addiction medicine has determined that Cannabis may actually serve as an "exit" substance for recovering alcoholics/hard drug addicts! And there is another extremely important property of Cannabis that the prohibitionists would love to keep secret: Cannabis use suppresses violent urges and behaviors and, as one prestigious textbook says, "Only the unsophisticated think otherwise" Then, of course, there is a potential of Cannabis in chronic pain, where other drugs may be ineffective (or physically addictive), with very important potential consequences for our wounded veterans, many of whom have chronic pain. It is also worth noting that Cannabis may have certain preventative value for such devastating conditions as cancer and Alzheimer's disease. And all this comes with no danger of overdoses or induction of a physical dependence! Let's be very happy that the cocaine abuse rate is dropping. Let's not interfere with these dynamics, and then we can possibly achieve what has already been achieved in the Netherlands where the drug overdose rate is 85%(!!) lower than in the US, and that is with much more liberal Cannabis possession laws than in this country! Maybe it is time to give up "dogma" about Cannabis, and to start listening to the experts, if we really want to lower the alcohol/hard drug use in this country, and the accompanying dependencies and overdoses!

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