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Major Studies of Drugs and Drug Policy
Cannabis Control Policy

 Cannabis Control Policy: A Discussion Paper

 Health Protection Branch

Department of National Health and Welfare

January 1979

The Financial Cost of Cannabis Enforcement

The Health Protection Branch has recently begun collecting data on the dollar cost of cannabis enforcement. Research in this area is always difficult as much of the information is confidential, enforcement agencies are sensitive about external appraisals of their operations, and, even when accessible, the data rarely refer to purely cannabis-related costs. Information on enforcement costs, particularly for the offence of simple possession, is critical to any comprehensive assessment of the present control regime. Obviously some public hazards warrant almost any expenditure. However, where one is skeptical of the impact of current measures and faced with limited resources, it is reasonable to strive for a more efficient and effective administration of justice. And this requires estimates, at least, of present costs.

California has provided the most comprehensive study of the fiscal costs of cannabis enforcement. The Final Report of the California Legislature Senate Select Committee on Control of Marijuana conservatively estimated the cost of state cannabis law enforcement for 1972 at $100 million. As the Report noted, this figure "is considered a minimum calculation: the actual costs to the taxpayer were probably much higher" as various processing, committal, juvenile justice, diversion, rehabilitation and peripheral welfare costs were not included in the calculation. (California, May, 1974:113) The cost of an adult cannabis arrest and prosecution in 1972 was conservatively estimated at between $1,200 (a figure that excluded state, as opposed to local, law enforcement agency expenditures) and $2,800. Approximately 80% of those arrested were charged with possession. These California data exclude substantial cost items and are somewhat dated, but if we were to apply them to Canada, the police and judicial costs of processing the 41,000 adults charged with cannabis possession in 1977 would be conservatively estimated at between $49 and $115 million. The 2,214 juveniles similarly charged in 1977, would, of course, represent an additional expense.

A second, and the only indigenously Canadian calculation, appears in a recent paper by Hogarth and Robertson. (June 7, 1978, rev. Sept. 1, 1978:44) Stripped to its essentials, their argument is as follows: A task force on the administration of justice estimated that the total annual cost of administering the Canadian criminal justice system is about $2 billion. Cannabis possession of fences constitute about one-eighth (or 13%, in 1976) of all criminal offences, and one can "assume" that these cases require, on average, one-half the resources of "ordinary" crimes. Thus, taking 13% of $2 billion and dividing by 2, they arrive at an annual simple possession enforcement cost of $130,000,000.

Unfortunately their analysis suffers from several fatal methodological flaws. The "one-out-of-eight" statistic, for example, refers to all cannabis-related offences, not just simple possession as the authors assume. As well, their calculations exclude consideration of federal highway traffic charges such as impaired driving and failure to provide a breath sample, which, if included, would increase the total number of criminal offences by a third. More importantly, moreover, the $2 billion figure included not only all federal offences but, as well, all provincial and municipal offences except parking violations. In fact, cannabis offences represent only about 1%, rather than 13%, of the total Canadian offences recorded in 1975. (National Task Force on the Administration of Justice, June 7, 1977: 18-19, 24). Of equal difficulty is Hogarth and Robertson's assumption that cannabis cases involved one-half the resources of "ordinary" crimes. Once it is realized that the $2 billion figure refers to violations of provincial statutes and municipal by-laws as well as federal enactments, then it is likely that the average cost of a cannabis possession offence is considerably greater than the approximately $350 average cost of an "ordinary" offence. This is because the formal proceedings in criminal cases are far more costly than the "ticketing" procedures commonly employed in the provincial and municipal violations that account for the bulk of Canadian offences.

Although any estimate must be speculative at this stage, it appears reasonable to suggest that the enforcement cost for the offence of simple possession of cannabis is between $60 and $100 million per year. It should be emphasized that even if this offence were repealed, there would likely be no direct monetary savings. More realistically, the funds now spent on enforcing the prohibition of possession would be reallocated to other police operations. In California, for example, a July 1975 enactment (SB 95) reduced the offence of simple possession of marijuana from a possible felony carrying a penalty of up to ten years' imprisonment to a citable misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of a $100 fine. A legislatively mandated study of the impact of this "decriminalization" measure found that the law enforcement and judicial system costs for marijuana possession were 75% lower during the first six months of 1976 than during the comparable period immediately prior to the new law's enactment. Comparing the same two periods, marijuana possession arrests and citations were reduced by nearly 50% while "arrests of heroin addicts and other drug offenders increased significantly...reflecting greater police concentration on hard drug offenders." (California, State Office of Narcotics and Drug Abuse, January, 1977:1,8)

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