For years, commentators have criticized America's so-called War on Drugs. Across the country, an emphasis on punishment has filled jails and prisons with hundreds of thousands of nonviolent drug offenders. In particular, this includes many people arrested for the possession of small amounts of marijuana.
St. Louis drug possession cases have followed this national pattern. But now, there is not only renewed scrutiny on what how this is costing. There are also changing attitudes about marijuana - and whether possession of small amounts should be treated as a criminal offense at all.
The changing attitudes are reflected in the fact that 18 states and the District of Columbia (though not Missouri) now have some form of medical cannabis law. Such laws generally allow pot to be used for therapeutic purposes, so long as some has a recognized medical condition and receives a prescription from a doctor.
But the changing attitudes go beyond medical marijuana. In last November's election, two states - Washington and Colorado - legalized marijuana for recreational purposes.
To be sure, there remain issues regarding the classification of marijuana as a controlled substance under federal law. But at least there is growing awareness of the degree to which the enforcement of laws on low-level marijuana possession have taken a disproportionate share of law enforcement resources.
Nationally, some estimates put the costs of such enforcement as around $10 billion a year. And the sheer number of arrests is staggering. In 2011, it was 663,032. That was more than the entire combined number for all violent crimes.
Source: "Marijuana Possession Arrests Exceed Violent Crime Arrests," Huffington Post, Katy Hall & Chris Spurlock, 1-17-13