What Would Happen if the U.S. Fully Enforced Prohibition

By David Jenison on January 17, 2018

At the 2016 Desert Trip music festival, the cameras captured various concertgoers during the Rolling Stones set, and the audience erupted in wild cheers when the big screen showed a young lady vaping cannabis. Recreational use was still illegal at the time, which means tens of thousands of people celebrated the law breaker for her open defiance of federal cannabis prohibition. “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” provided the perfect soundtrack to the criminal act captured on the big screen and cheered on by the huge audience.

Despite such responses that epitomize majority support for legalization, the federal government still refuses to reschedule cannabis—continuing to restrict it more than cocaine and crystal meth—let alone legalize it. And this has cost taxpayers billions. 

The government’s Federal Register estimated in 2015 that taxpayers pay an average of $30,619.85 per year to incarcerate someone in a federal prison, while the Vera Institute of Justice in 2012 estimated the annual per-prisoner cost in state systems runs $31,286. The FBI released a crime data report showing that the police arrest someone for cannabis every 49 seconds, with 643,000 total arrests in 2015. Moreover, a report released by Human Rights Watch found that more Americans are arrested for drug offenses than all forms of violent crime combined, and a 2010 American Civil Liberties (ACLU) report found that states spend approximately $3.6 billion per year to enforce cannabis prohibition. Worse still, the latter figure does not include federal inmate costs or a wide range of additional expenses such as higher welfare numbers (former inmates struggle to find jobs) and lost tax revenue from hard-working Americans who cannot contribute to the workforce from behind bars. 

Another report estimated that a million NYPD hours were spent enforcing low-level offenses between 2002 and 2012. These hours could have been spent preventing violent crime, rooting out potential terrorists and improving neighborhoods through positive community policing. One can only imagine how many lives were lost and how many serious crimes committed because police officers nationwide had to spend significant time enforcing prohibition. 

With all of these tragic statistics in mind, now imagine if the government fully enforced prohibition and arrested every cannabis consumer. The 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health estimated that 22.2 million Americans aged 12 and older (i.e., more than 10 percent) were current cannabis consumers. According to current federal law, all of these individuals are criminals who belong behind bars. If the government arrested every one of these individuals and kept them behind bars, the annual taxpayer cost would exceed $688 billion per year. That figure is more than $100 billion over the current annual federal deficit, but the costs don’t stop there. The average American pays $8,548.49 in annual taxes, per IRS data for 2013, so if all 22.2 million cannabis users put in jail normally paid the average, fully enforced prohibition would short the government $190 billion in tax revenue. This would bring the total bill for prohibition to $878 billion, i.e., more than a quarter of all tax revenue received by the IRS, and that still does not include expenses like increased welfare payments and the cost to build additional prison complexes. 

The U.S. currently has 2.3 million people in prison, making up about a quarter of the world’s prison population, but that number would increase sixfold if all the cannabis criminals were arrested. At that point, the U.S. would house more criminals than every other country combined—by a significant margin—and it would arguably bankrupt the country. 

That’s right: The full enforcement of cannabis prohibition would potentially end the United States of America as we know it. Pretty ironic considering so many of the Founding Fathers grew cannabis. 

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