what is known about the preventive effects of various methods of enforcing prohibitions against trafficking in illegal drugs. The question of interest in this section is what is known about the added preventive effects achieved by prescribing and enforcing sanctions against users.

Possession of any amount of illegal drugs is a crime under both federal and state law, typically punishable by incarceration. (The only exception is possession of small amounts of marijuana, which, in a handful of states, is punishable only by a fine.) Although possession offenses are typically prosecuted as misdemeanors, punishable by up to a year in the local jail, about 30 states classify possession of opiates or cocaine as a felony, punishable by a prison term and all the collateral consequences that accompany a felony conviction, such as loss of occupational licenses and the right to vote. In addition, all states punish possession of drug paraphernalia, including syringes, and other consumption-related behavior.


The federal government concentrates its enforcement effort on trafficking offenses—only 2 percent of the 27,000 federal drug arrests in fiscal year 1998 were for possession, and most of these were misdemeanor arrests in the District of Columbia. By contrast, 80 percent of the drug arrests made by state and local law enforcement agencies are for simple possession (i.e., possession of small amounts without evidence of intent to distribute).1 More than 1.2 million arrests were made for drug possession offenses in 1998, and half of these were for possession of marijuana (Bureau of Justice Statistics, Drug and Crime Facts). The proportion of these arrests resulting in criminal convictions is unknown. Most people convicted of simple possession are sentenced as misdemeanants to probation or, in cases involving repeat offenders, short terms in local jails. (In 1996, for example, 11.3 percent of all jail inmates were incarcerated for a drug violation as their most serious offense.) However, more than 135,000 persons were convicted of felony possession charges in 1996, representing about 14 percent of all state felony convictions (Brown and Langan, 1999). And 70 percent of these offenders were sentenced to prison (29 percent) or local jail (41 percent). The mean maximum sentence length for felony drug possession offenders serving prison time was 42 months; for those sentenced to local jails, the mean maximum sentence was 5 months.

One of every seven drug arrestees in 1997 was a juvenile (Snyder, 1998). The number of juveniles arrested for drug offenses has increased


Simple possession excludes possession with intent to sell drugs. Although some traffickers are convicted of simple possession as a result of plea agreements, most possession offenders are users, not dealers.

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