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The costs of prohibition

The costs of prohibition

NORMAL Thurston analyzed 10 years of marijuana arrests in the county

Bailey Hirschburg

As a board member for the Thurston County chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) I approach marijuana arrests with a bias. I have trouble explaining the necessity to ban a plant that, after centuries of use, has yet to be fatal. I find it difficult to negotiate that while the National Institute of Health observed marijuana dependency in 9% of users, compared to 30% of users of alcohol. I find it hard to support federal scheduling which says marijuana has no medical value after meeting Erv Rosenfeld, whom the feds have been supplying with medical pot for a quarter century. So yes, I’ve become biased against a policy that is biased against facts.

But facts help our case, which is why NORML Thurston evaluated a decade’s worth of marijuana spending and arrests by law enforcement agencies in Thurston County. We looked at the number of arrests, whether they were for possession or sales and manufacturing, and from there we figured out the cost to the agencies. The results were fascinating if not surprising. Among the findings:

The Sheriff’s Department and police in Thurston County spent nearly $14 million dollars on marijuana arrests from 2002-2011.

Sixty-nine percent of the marijuana arrests in our county were just for possessing pot, not for selling or trafficking it.

Only the City of Lacey reports making more sale/manufacture arrests than possession arrests.

In Yelm there were over 100 possession arrests between 2002-11, but only two for any other marijuana offense.

Regulation of marijuana by the state, or adoption of lowest-enforcement practices for current laws would significantly lower the frequency of arrests. This downward pressure on arrests occurrences would free up officers and money for other arrests or investigations.

Bias aside, I believe in fairness.  Many of these arrests were secondary to another crime. This suggests that truly dangerous criminals won’t get off the hook without marijuana prohibition. Today, while police have discretion when they find marijuana,  there’s no protection for the officers who use it. They can face reprimand or even dismissal for not enforcing prohibition every time. This has to change.

Thurston County Sheriff John Snaza assures our legislature that few people languish in our jails for having marijuana. We hear this often, if people don’t get sent to prison does an arrest even matter? Yes, if you want to go to college; a drug arrest can keep you from aid or scholarships. Yes, if you want to be taken seriously for a home loan or job interview. Yes, if you want to keep visitation rights for a child. Quite simply, people who say an arrest record doesn’t matter almost universally don’t have one.

Yet, the suggestion of just changing the policy wasn’t acceptable to Sheriff Snaza either. He’s opposing legalization Initiative-502 on the ballot this fall. It’s confusing politics, and it’s not serving the safety of the public.

Voters here have a chance to begin fixing these policies this November. In the short term NORML Thurston is going to continue advocating for more effective and practical marijuana laws. In the long term we hope this report illustrates realities beyond arrests in our county. Hopefully it leads communities to ask what they are spending to fight marijuana, and what return they’re getting on that investment.

To see the arrests and costs, view our report on .


Bailey Hirschburg is a social justice activist living in Lacey. After leading a NORML chapter in college, he interned for the nation offices of NORML and the Drug Policy Alliance, and organized a chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy while a graduate student at Evergreen State College. Beyond NORML Thurston, he’s also a volunteer organizer for Yes on I-502.


Penalties against drug use should not be more damaging to an individual than the use of the drug itself.        Jimmy Carter

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