Skip to main content

LATEST UPDATES: Tracking COVID-19 | Vaccines | Racial Injustice

Would Legalizing Marijuana Cut Law Enforcement Costs?


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?

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.” 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.


San Diego News Now podcast branding

San Diego news; when you want it, where you want it. Get local stories on politics, education, health, environment, the border and more. New episodes are ready weekday mornings. Hosted by Anica Colbert and produced by KPBS, San Diego and the Imperial County's NPR and PBS station.

  • Need help keeping up with the news that matters most? Get the day's top news — ranging from local to international — straight to your inbox each weekday morning.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Want more KPBS news?
Find us on Twitter and Facebook, or sign up for our newsletters.

To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.