OLR Research Report

February 17, 2010




By: Soncia Coleman, Senior Legislative Attorney

You wanted to know whether states and municipalities that have decriminalized marijuana have achieved any cost-savings as a result.


During the 1970's there was a movement to decriminalize marijuana possession by imposing a civil fine rather than a criminal penalty. At least 11 states decriminalized during this period. More recently, Nevada and Massachusetts did so in 2002 and 2009 respectively. A number of municipalities have also taken steps to decriminalize or “deprioritize” marijuana arrests.

The majority of the studies we found focus on the question of whether decriminalization leads to increased marijuana use. However, in a 1997 report to the Judiciary Committee, the Connecticut Law Revision Commission found that studies of states that reduced penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana had significantly reduced expenses for arrests and prosecution of marijuana possession offenses. We were able to find only a few of these studies and they tend to be dated as most states decriminalized in the 1970's. However, a recent study estimates that decriminalization of marijuana in Massachusetts would produce an annual savings in law enforcement resources of approximately $29.5 million. We also summarize studies about decriminalization in California and Maine, and include a summary of the effects of deprioritization in Seattle, Washington.


We were unable to find any studies of the budgetary effects of marijuana decriminalization in Massachusetts due to the law's relatively recent enactment. Similarly, agencies and organizations contacted, including the Executive Office for Public Safety and the Massachusetts Sheriffs' Association, were unable to provide data. However, Harvard University lecturer Jeffrey Miron estimated the potential effect of marijuana decriminalization on Massachusetts state and municipal budgets in a 2008 report (updating a 2002 report) http://www.economics.harvard.edu/faculty/miron/files/decrim_update_2007.pdf . He concluded that decriminalization of marijuana in Massachusetts would produce an annual savings in law enforcement resources of approximately $29.5 million based on 2006 data.

To reach this conclusion, he multiplies the percentage of all Massachusetts' arrests that are for marijuana possession by the state's criminal justice budget. When determining the percentage of marijuana arrests, he notes that many arrests for marijuana possession do not lead to trials or prison terms. He also considers situations where arrests for marijuana possession occur because the arrestee was under suspicion for a different crime. (Incidentally, both of these issues were highlighted by the executive director of the Massachusetts Sheriffs' Association as reasons why the state might not realize a cost savings.)

To address these issues, Miron attempts to separate stand-alone marijuana and “civil-incidental” (e.g. marijuana found during a traffic stop) arrests from “criminal-incidental” arrests (i.e. marijuana found during an arrest for another criminal offense). Miron found that judges and lawyers generally estimated stand-alone arrests at 40% of marijuana possession arrests in Massachusetts. He also found, using arrest data for two Massachusetts towns, that about 33% of marijuana possession arrests fell into the stand-alone or civil-incidental category. He determined that 33% was a reasonable estimate of the marijuana arrests that would no longer occur due to decriminalization. He also found that 5.8% of all arrests in Massachusetts were for marijuana possession. He multiplied this by 33% to get 1.9% as the fraction of all arrests that would not occur and result in a savings of criminal justice resources under decriminalization.

He found that savings in criminal justice resources had three components: a reduction in police resources because of the reduced number of arrests; a reduction in prosecutorial and judicial resources because of the reduced number of criminal applications, pre-trial hearings, and trials; and a reduction in correctional resources because of the reduced number of prisoners. However, he found that only the first category was likely to be substantially affected by decriminalization due to the low numbers of people incarcerated solely for marijuana possession. Therefore, he took 1.9% of the Massachusetts' budget for police protection, resulting in the $29.5 million figure. He concludes that this estimate may be low for several reasons, including an assumption that parole and probation rules will stay the same (e.g. testing positive for marijuana will still be considered a violation possibly resulting in a prison sentence.)


A recent report written by University of Washington Professors Beckett and Herbert, explores the consequences and costs of marijuana prohibition. Their report discusses Seattle's adoption of ballot initiative I-75 in 2003. The initiative mandated that the police department and city attorney's office make the investigation, arrest, and prosecution of marijuana offenders the city's lowest enforcement priority when the marijuana is intended for adult personal use. Citing the Marijuana Policy Review Panel, which was required to be established by the ballot initiative, the authors concluded that there were reductions in the number of (1) referrals of marijuana-related incidents from the police department to the city attorney and (2) people charged with marijuana possession by the city attorney, after I-75's adoption.


A 1988 study published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs discusses the savings in California law enforcement costs attributable to the Moscone Act of 1976. Prior to the enactment of the Moscone Act, one quarter of the felony arrests in California were for marijuana and it cost the state $100 million annually to process marijuana offenders. The act reduced possession of small amounts of marijuana from a felony to a new type of misdemeanor. The study's authors, Aldrich and Mikuriya, concluded that California saved at least $1 billion between 1976 and 1986 as a result of this change. However, this study is not especially illustrative as if focuses on the cost savings associated with reducing marijuana possession from a felony to a misdemeanor rather than decriminalization.


In his 2002 study, Miron summarizes a 1979 report of the Maine State Office of Alcoholism and Drug Prevention analyzing the savings achieved through Maine's decriminalization of marijuana in 1976. We could not find a copy of this study, but Miron notes that the study costs out each item affected by decriminalization (e.g. arrests, court appearances), concluding in a net savings of around $350,000.