After the Cheering Stopped: Decriminalization and Legalism's Limits
39 Pages Posted: 24 Sep 2014
Date Written: September 5, 2014
To the great relief of many, American criminal law, long known for its harshness and expansive prohibitory reach, is now showing signs of softening. A prime example of this shift is seen in the proliferation of laws decriminalizing the personal possession of small amounts of marijuana: today, almost twenty states and dozens of localities have embraced decriminalization in some shape or form, with more laws very likely coming to fruition soon. Despite enjoying broad political support, the decriminalization movement has however failed to curb a core feature of criminalization: police authority to arrest individuals suspected of possessing marijuana. Arrests for marijuana possession have skyrocketed in number in recent years, including within decriminalization jurisdictions. This essay examines the chief reasons behind this disconnect, centering on powerful institutional incentives among police to continue to make arrests, enabled by judicial doctrine that predates the recent shift toward decriminalization. The essay also identifies ways to help ensure that laws decriminalizing simple marijuana possession, as well as other low-level offenses, better achieve decriminalization’s goal of limiting the arrest authority of police and the many negative personal consequences of arrest.
Keywords: decriminalization, marijuana, policing, Fourth Amendment
JEL Classification: K14, K40, K42
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation