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Informing America’s Policy on Illegal Drugs: What We Don’t Know Keeps Hurting Us
1993). Similarly, studies of the relation between prevalence of drug use and variations in legal penalties for drug use tend to find no relationship. For example, Chaloupka et al. (1998) found, using the Monitoring the Future survey data from 1982 and 1989, that variations in length of prison terms prescribed by state law were unrelated to prevalence or frequency of cocaine or marijuana use by high school seniors. They also found that substantial increases in prescribed fines would have little or no effect. These findings are unsurprising because, under present enforcement conditions, the deterrent effect of criminal sanctions against drug use is attenuated significantly by the low probability of detection for any given violation and even for repeated violations. Other factors, including the perceived benefits of drug use, fear of health-related risks, and informal social controls, may have a more significant influence on decisions about using drugs than legal deterrence. As in the case of underage alcohol and tobacco use, current enforcement may have a stronger effect on where people carry or use drugs, rather than on whether they do so.
The issue most extensively studied has been the impact of decriminalization on the prevalence of marijuana use among youths and adults. Penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use were significantly reduced in 11 states in the 1970s (Bonnie, 1981b). All of these laws preclude incarceration for consumption-related marijuana offenses, making the offense punishable only by a fine, and most also classify the offense in a category (typically a civil infraction) that does not carry the stigmatizing consequence of having been convicted of a crime— hence the term “decriminalization.”2
Most cross-state comparisons in the United States (as well as in Australia; see McGeorge and Aitken, 1997) have found no significant differences in the prevalence of marijuana use in decriminalized and nondecriminalized states (e.g., Johnston et al., 1981; Single, 1989; DiNardo and Lemieux, 1992; Thies and Register, 1993). Even in the few studies that find an effect on prevalence, it is a weak one. For example, using pooled data from the National Household Survey of Drug Abuse for 1988, 1990 and 1991, Saffer and Chaloupka (1995) found that marijuana decriminalization increased past-year marijuana use by 6 to 7 percent and past-
The term “decriminalization” has sometimes been misunderstood to refer to “legalization” (i.e., making drugs legally available for nonmedical uses, as in the case of alcohol). However, as used by experts in criminal law and popularized by the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse in 1972, “decriminalization” refers to the repeal of criminal sanctions against possession for personal use, even though the drugs remain contraband and commercial access remains prohibited. The erroneous association between decriminalization and legalization has led some commentators to abandon the term in favor of “depenalization” to refer to these more lenient marijuana laws.