New Study Provides First Comprehensive Report on Drug Laws in All 50 States and DC, Variations Abound 2/22/02

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A study commissioned for ImpactTeen, a youth drug prevention research organization, and released on February 15 found that state drug laws vary significantly across the US, contradicting what the study called "a commonly held belief" that state policies follow federal drug policy. The vast majority of drug offenders are tried in state courts.

The report documents on a state-by-state basis each state's scheduling and sentencing provisions for selected drugs, as well as medical marijuana, and identifies disparities in state and federal controlled substance scheduling.

"This report illustrates that states play an important role in the war on drugs. State legislatures have taken varied approaches to addressing the drug problem," said Dr. Jamie Chriqui, Vice-President of the Health Policy and Legislative Analysis Program at The MayaTech Corporation and lead author on the report, in a prepared statement.

"States have a history of drug policy experimentation that has, at times, differed from federal policy," added Dr. Duane McBride, Director of the Institute for the Prevention of Addiction at Andrews University and Principal Investigator. "This report highlights that this tradition continues today."

That experimentation has led to mind-boggling differences in the way drug offenses are treated by the various states. Sale of 10 grams of marijuana, for instance, would net less than a year in most states, but could earn a life sentence in Oklahoma or Montana, the authors reported. Similarly, the sale of a standard retail quantity of ecstasy merits a one-year sentence in North Carolina, but could earn a life sentence in Montana. A first offender may be subject to anywhere from one year to lifetime imprisonment and $5,000 to $1 million in fines for the sale of one ecstasy pill. Three states (Arkansas, Idaho, and Oklahoma) have life sentences for sale of standard retail quantities of cocaine, and four states (Arkansas, Idaho, Oklahoma, and Texas) impose life sentences for retail methamphetamine sales.

The study also found that the federal 100:1 disparity in crack and powder cocaine sentences has not been widely copied by the states. Eleven states followed the federal lead, and while the authors do not speculate, it appears that in most of those cases the laws were the result of generalized fears rather than particular crack epidemics. Most of the following states are not commonly associated with widespread crack use: Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Wyoming.

The authors of "Illicit Drug Policies: Selected Laws from the 50 States" are careful to note that it is not their intent to weigh in on the drug policy debate, merely to provide accurate data. They have done so. The study is a handy reference on drug laws in the states and could provide plenty of ammunition for activists wishing to argue that their state's policies are cruel and unusual.

But although the authors took pains to not weigh in, they could not help themselves. In the last paragraph of the study, they write: "Our societal choice of the use of law, especially criminal law, as a major means of addressing drug use can have significant consequences. The approach has virtually saturated our criminal justice system with drug users and, perhaps, it may also have precluded the consideration of other policy alternatives to address the needs of drug users. We believe that insight can be gained from a more detailed and comprehensive analysis of what states are doing legislatively to address the drug problem."

(Ironically, the report's executive summary opens like this: "Illicit drug use is associated with a wide variety of negative health and social consequences, the total cost of which was estimated to be $110 billion in 1995" and cites the same studies on the economic cost of drug abuse critiqued above. Here is a living example of how such questionable numbers take on lives of their own as justifications for not only public policy positions but also academic research.)

The study is available online at

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Issue #225, 2/22/02 Editorial: Costs and Consequences | Lies, Damn Lies, and "The Economic Costs of Drug Abuse in the United States, 1992-1998" | New Mexico Post-Mortem: Reformers Differ on What Went Right, What Went Wrong | Britain: Parliamentary Committee Will Recommend Cannabis Decrim, Ecstasy Down-Scheduling, More Heroin Prescriptions | Dutch to Consider Prescription Heroin for Hard Cases, Study Results Lay Groundwork for Move | New Study Provides First Comprehensive Report on Drug Laws in All 50 States and DC, Variations Abound | At the Statehouse: Medical Marijuana Moving in Maryland and Vermont | Libertarian Party Ad Campaign Takes on Drug Terror Link | Federal Drug Office Accused of "Enron-Style Accounting" in New National Drug Budget Reporting | News Links: Bolivia and Colombia, California Medical Marijuana, Drug-Terror Ad Parody | Alerts: HEA, Bolivia, DEA Hemp Ban, SuperBowl Ad, Ecstasy Legislation, Mandatory Minimums, Medical Marijuana, Virginia | The Reformer's Calendar

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