Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, Vol. 20(1), January-March 1988, pp. 75-81

Savings In California Marijuana Law Enforcement Costs
Attributable to the Moscone Act of 1976 - A Summary

By Michael R. Aldrich, Ph.D. *
and Tod Mikuriya, M.D. **

The fiscal costs of California marijuana law enforcement began to escalate dramatically in the mid-1960's as mainly young, White, middle class marijuana offenders flooded the criminal justice system, replacing older, nonWhite heroin addicts as the typical drug offenders in the state (Aldrich, Mikuriya & Brownell 1986: 29). California marijuana arrests leaped tenfold from 1962 (3,743) to 1967 (37,514), with corresponding increases in the number and cost of court dispositions, incarcerations in county jails and state prisons, and probation and parole caseloads. As shown in Table I, by 1972 there were approximately 76,561 marijuana related arrests, of which 73,061 were felony arrests, mostly for possession offenses. By 1974 there were nearly 100,000 felony marijuana-related arrests, and these comprised one quarter of all the felony arrests in the state (Aldrich, Mikuriya & Brownell 1986).

The steep increase in the number of arrests, the change in drug-offender characteristics, and the felony status of marijuana possession offenses led legislators to adopt several different strategies to cope with the burden on the criminal justice system. These included the so-called wobbler bills of 1968 and 1969, which allowed first offense felony marijuana possession cases to be disposed of as misdemeanors, and since 1972, a diversion program that has allowed charges to be dropped against first offenders if they complete a drug abuse treatment program (Brownell 1988). Nevertheless, the cost of marijuana law enforcement continued to explode, from approximately eight million dollars in 1960 to over $100 million a year in 1972 (California Senate Select Committee 1974: 97-118).

The crux of the problem faced by legislators was that possession of marijuana was a felony offense. In terms of law enforcement time, personnel. and budgets, a felony offense receives top priority. It frequently involves the following: investigation by more than one officer; transporting, booking, and incarcerating the offender; hours of paperwork; and time spent in court by the arresting officers. In addition, a felony drug offense often involves the use of paid informants, gathering evidence and reliable witnesses, a budget for drug purchases, undercover work, and interagency cooperation. Even under the wobbler provisions of Penal Code Section 17, a felony charge required adjudication in a lower court or Superior Court, investigation of the defendant's prior criminal record, and some expenditure of public funds at every level of the criminal justice system. This may include the cost of grand juries, public defenders, prosecutors, judges, bailiffs, juries, hearings, trials, appeals, county jails, state prisons, and/or probation and parole systems, depending on how each case proceeds (Aldrich, Mikuriya & Brownell 1986; Calof 1968).

On the other hand, a misdemeanor offense generally requires less expenditure of time and money by law enforcement agencies, can often be adjudicated in the lower courts, and punishes the convicted offender with a fine, probation or a year or less in county jail rather than a year or more in state prison. A citation offense, which involves giving the offender a ticket with a fixed bail that can be forfeited as a fine, is the least expensive offense category because it can be disposed of with a minimum of police work, court time, and cost to penal institutions (Aldrich et al. 1987).



Year             Felony           Misdemeanor             Total

1972             73,061             3,500                 76,561
1973             88,110             3,500                 91,610
1974             99,597             3,500                103,097
1975             85,757             3,500                 89,257


1974-75          92,677             3,500                 96,177
1976             19,284            34,110                 53,394
1977             17,262            34,110                 51,371
1978             17,397            35,424                 52,821
1979             19,263            32,796                 52,059
1980             20,509            38,270                 58,779
1981             20,771            43,791                 64,562
1982             20,737            42,904                 63,641
1983             19,920            43,803                 63,723
1984             21,350            42,219                 63,569
1985             24,182            43,181                 67,363


1976-85          20,068            39,133                 59,201
1986             19,938            30,105                 50,043
* Data provided by Bureau of Criminal Statistics and Special Services, California Department of Justice. Misdemeanor marijuana arrest figures were not recorded by the Bureau between 1972 through 1977, and are estimated based an the averages of the three preceding years and the two following years, al. 1987).

It was this reality-based observation of the criminal justice system that Senator George Moscone, then Majority Leader of the State Senate, recognized when designing California's unique misdemeanor citation system for possession of marijuana in small amounts (Brownell 1988; Aldrich et al. 1987; Atkeson 1987; Budman 1977; Uelman 1976; Moscone 1974); and it is this reality that is recognized in the present article in estimating the savings attributable to that law. At present (under the Moscone Act), almost all misdemeanor marijuana offenses are citable, and are valued in this article at one third the cost of felony marijuana arrests.


The methods utilized are presented in detail, with annual tables and formulas used for calculations, by Aldrich and colleagues (1987) and Aldrich, Mikuriya and Brownell (1986). California marijuana arrest data from 1960 through 1985, and court dispositions and law enforcement expenditures from 1972 through 1985 were obtained from the Bureau of Criminal Statistics and Special Services of the California Department of Justice.

Marijuana arrest expenditures were calculated according to a method designed by Post, a former legislative analyst (California Senate Select Committee 1974: 99) who determined that approximately one quarter of police time is devoted to the detection and apprehension of criminals, and therefore that arrest expenditures are approximately one quarter of all law enforcement expenditures. Weighting felony arrests at three times as expensive as misdemeanor arrests, the average cost per felony was determined by dividing total arrest expenditures by the number of felony arrests plus one third of the number of misdemeanor arrests. Felony marijuana arrest expenditures from 1972 through 1985 were then calculated by multiplying the number of felony marijuana arrests by the cost per felony arrest for each year. The average cost per misdemeanor arrest was obtained by dividing the cost per felony arrest by three, and misdemeanor marijuana arrest expenditures were calculated by multiplying the number of marijuana arrests by the cost per misdemeanor arrest for each year. Total marijuana arrest expenditures for each year were obtained by adding felony and misdemeanor marijuana arrest expenditures (Aldrich et al. 1987).

The method used to calculate the cost of marijuana court-disposition relies on a time-weighting technique used by the Judicial Council of California (1985: 112ff) to determine the number of judgeships needed in the state. This technique recognizes the wide variance in judicial time needed to dispose of different types of cases, and gives a much more accurate picture of court costs than would be obtained using raw numbers of dispositions. In 1984, for instance, criminal case dispositions were 10 percent of the total dispositions filed in Superior Court, but took up 33 percent of Superior Court time. For comparison, juvenile delinquency cases were also 10 percent of Superior Court dispositions, but took up only seven percent of its time (Judicial Council of California 1985: 114). Using time-weights and budgets published annually by the Judicial Council, the costs, of adult felony marijuana cases were calculated by ascertaining the costs of criminal cases in the lower courts and Superior Courts, along with court-related costs in each, for each year from 1972 through 1985, and then multiplying the result by the percentage of those cases that involved marijuana.

Annual prison and parole population counts and expenditures were obtained from the California Department of Corrections, dividing the latter by the former to determine per capita costs. These costs were then multiplied by the number of prisoners and parolees whose most serious convicted offense was a marijuana charge (also provided by the Department of Corrections) to determine the cost of marijuana-related prison and parole for each year from 1974 through 1985.

The State and Local Government Implicit Price Deflation a federal index available from the Commission on State Finance that is frequently employed by state agencies for budget analysis, was used to adjust marijuana law enforcement expenditures for inflation. Savings attributable to the Moscone Act (expressed in 1986 dollars) were calculated by subtracting the inflation-adjusted arrest, disposition, prison and parole expenditures for each year after the law took effect (January 1, 1976) from a baseline average of these expenditures in the two years (1974 and 1975) immediately before the law took effect.



             Arrest         Court         Prison      Parole       Total
Year          ($)            ($)           ($)         ($)          ($)

1974        84,365,805    65,465,904   8,452,864    2,651,780   160,927,353
1975        75,904,642    71,169,219   5,874,307    1,430,688   154,378,856


1974-75     80,135,224    68,313,062   7,163,586    2,041,234   157,653,106
1976        28,986,982    38,176,161   3,489,715    1,260,906    71,913,764
1977        27,555,968    21,653,977   2,929,779      809,452    52,949,176
1978        29,206,147    19,640,441   2,398,912      583,091    51,828,591
1979        27,845,946    17,695,094   1,813,040      385,754    47,739,834
1980        32,411,715    21,058,801   1,702,828      303,944    55,477,288
1981        34,672,973    23,280,289   2,013,524      294,976    60,261,762
1982        36,571,996    25,253,457   2,462,066      304,487    64,592,006
1983        37,176,773    27,078,229   2,609,865      512,587    67,377,454
1984        38,905,293    26,042,226   4,628,388      666,623    70,242,530
1985        43,466,094    21,869,419   9,259,076    1,249,667    75,844,256


1976-85    336,799,887   241,748,094   33,307,193   6,371,487    618,226,661


1976-85     33,679,988    24,174,809    3,330,719     637,149     61,822,666
* From Aldrich et al. 1987.


As shown in Table I and Figure 1, the major ongoing effect. of the Moscone Act has been to reduce felony marijuana arrests from 92,677 a year (the average for 1974 and 1975) to 20,068 a year (the average for 1976 through 1985). Thus the new law saved California the expenses of 72,609 felony arrests every year for a decade, a 78 percent decrease in felony marijuana arrest expenditures.

At the same time, making possession a citable misdemeanor caused a tenfold increase in misdemeanor marijuana arrests: from an average of 3,500 per year for 1974 and 1975 to an, average of 39,113 per year from 1976 through 1985-an average increase of 35,613. However, these misdemeanor citations were not nearly as expensive to issue or to adjudicate. The cumulative effect was to cut total marijuana-related arrests by 39 percent over the decade: from an average of 96,177 for 1974 and 1975 to an average of 59,128 from 1976 through 1985-an average decrease of 37,049 marijuana arrests per year.

The massive reduction in felony arrests, in tandem with a more modest increase in misdemeanor arrests, produced an extraordinary drop in statewide law enforcement expenditures since 1976, as shown in Table IL Total expenditures (in 1986 dollars) on marijuana arrests, court dispositions, prisoners and parolees dropped from an average of $157.6 million for 1974 and 1975 to an average of $61.8 million per year during the following decade.

As shown in Table III, the State of California has saved nearly half a billion dollars ($464,552,353 or $46 million below 100 in 1980. This resulted in considerable savings in prison and parole expenditures (see Table II), which totaled more than $52 million since 1976 (see Table III).



               Arrest      Court       Prison/Parole             Total
              Savings     Savings         Savings                Savings

Year            ($)         ($)             ($)                ($)

1976          51,148,242    30,136,901      4,454,199        85,739,342
1977          52,579,256    46,659,085      5,465,589       104,703,930
1978          50,929,077    48,672,621      6,222,817       105,824,515
1979          52,289,278    50,617,968      7,006,126       109,913,372
1980          47,723,509    47,254,261      7,198,048       102,175,818
1981          45,462,251    45,032,773      6,896,320        97,391,344
1982          43,563,228    43,059,605      6,439,267        93,062,100
1983          42,958,451    41,234,833      6,082,368        90,275,652
1994          41,229,931    42,270,836      3,909,809        87,410,576
1985          36,669,130    46,443,643     [1,303.923]       81,808,850


1976-85      464,552,353   441,382,526     52,370,620       958,305,499
Average savings per year (10-year period): $95.8 million per year.

* From Aldrich et al. 1987. Court disposition savings pertain only to adult felony dispositions because data on adult misdemeanor dispositions are unavailable and juvenile division data are limited. Adult felony dispositions (1973-1974) were not reported to the Bureau of Criminal Statistics and Special Services, and estimates were made based on annual increments between 1972 and 1975.



            In Prison              On Parole                   Total

Year           (n)                    (n)                       (n)

1972           636                   1,061                     1,697
1973           668                     873                     1,541
1974           605                     661                     1,266
1975           317                     462                       779
1976           198                     349                       547
1977           146                     216                       362
1978           121                     104                       225
1979           101                      85                       186
1980            98                      80                       178
1981           119                      69                       188
1982            57                      76                       233
1983           191                     167                       358
1984           327                     234                       561
1985           618                     396                     1,014
* Aldrich et al. 1987. Data provided by the California Department of Corrections.


The State of California has saved a minimum of one billion dollars since 1976 as a result of making possession of an ounce or less of marijuana a citable misdemeanor instead of a felony. The present study considered savings from 1976 through 1985 in four major areas: arrest costs, court costs, prison costs and parole costs. Together they amounted to a total savings of $958 million, or nearly $ 100 million per year (see Table III). When these savings are compared with the $100 million a year being spent on marijuana law enforcement in 1971 and 1972 (California Senate Select Committee 1974: 118) and the average of $157.6 million spent in 1974 and 1975 (see Table II), it is evident that the Moscone Act has been quite successful in achieving two of its main objectives: (1) reducing law enforcement expenditures related to possession of small amounts of marijuana to a minimum; and (2) relieving an overwhelming burden on the state judicial system.

One billion dollars should be considered a minimum estimate of savings because the present study did not include savings in the cost of county jails, prosecutors, public defenders, probation departments, misdemeanor court dispositions, juvenile facilities, or peripheral parts of the criminal justice system involved with marijuana law enforcement, such as the cost of collecting statistics. Nor were any savings in expenditures by individual arrestees or defendants considered. Savings are also underestimated because the total amount of fines paid for marijuana misdemeanor citations is not recorded. If all of the 40,671 people cited for possession of an ounce or less of marijuana in 1985 (Aldrich et al. 1987: 1) paid a $100 fine, that revenue amounts to more than four million dollars per year.

When the Moscone Act was being debated in the California Legislature in 1974, some opponents of the bill were concerned that reducing penalties for possession for an ounce or less of marijuana to a maximum $100 fine would be a "green light" for drug users across the state (Budman 1977). Senator Moscone pointed out that a 1974 study of marijuana use in Oregon, which had passed a similar statute in 1973, had found no increase in statewide use of the drug, while 40 percent of the marijuana smokers surveyed reported a decrease in their use (California Senate Select Committee: 6-7). A follow-up survey in Oregon in 1976 (Drug Abuse Council 1977) showed only a very slight (three percent) increase in the number currently using marijuana, and also reported that fear of prosecution did not rank high as a reason for not using the drug in either 1974 or 1976.

More recently, Mandel (1987) analyzed street-drug arrests and emergency room episodes in California since the Moscone Act took effect, and concluded that the two best statistical indicators of drug use in California show that lowering penalties for marijuana possession did not cause a rise in the use of that drug. Even though felony arrests for marijuana sale, cultivation, and possession for sale have been increasing in the past few years, California taxpayers are still spending only about half as much on marijuana arrests and a third as much on marijuana related court cases as they were in 1974 and 1975. There is no other crime in the state for which this can be said.

However, the recent increase in the number of marijuana felons in prison (see Table IV and Figure 2) bodes ill for the future in terms of statewide criminal justice expenditures. In 1985 this number zoomed up to 618, slightly above the 1974 level. This resulted in a loss of $1.3 million in 1985 prison and parole costs compared to 1974 and 1975 (see Table III), which indicates that increasing felony marijuana arrests and convictions will eliminate savings and drive marijuana law enforcement, court, prison and parole costs up again in the near future.

Either refelonization of the citable misdemeanor marijuana offenses or replacing the fixed penalty (a maximum $100 fine) of these offenses with alternative fine/jail/ prison penalties would obliterate the citation system and all the savings brought about by using this system. Either of these legislative changes would at least triple, and more likely quadruple, statewide marijuana law enforcement and criminal justice system expenditures in every future year (Aldrich et al. 1987).

It is rare that taxpayers can congratulate lawmakers for saving a considerable amount of money in any area of law enforcement The present system is accomplishing the purposes for which it was designed by Senator Moscone, by keeping possession of small amounts of marijuana a criminal offense while significantly reducing the criminal justice expenditures related to that offense.


The authors gratefully acknowledge the editorial assistance of Gordon Brownell, Michael Rossman and Jerry Mandel at various stages of this ongoing study, and wish to thank the following for providing the data on which it is based: Charlotte Rhea and Quinton Hegner, Department of Criminal Statistics; Joe Doyle, Administrative Office of the Courts; Linda Greule, Phyllis Marquez and Doug Jenks, Department of Corrections; and Greg Geeting, Commission on State Finance.


Aldrich, M.R.; Mikuriya, T.H. & Brownell, G.S. 1986. Preliminary Report: Fiscal Costs of California Marijuana Law Enforcement 1960-1984. Part 1: Arrest Costs. Berkeley, California: Medi-Comp Press.

Aldrich, M.R.; Mikuriya, T.H.; Brownell, G.S. & Mandel, J.S. 1987. Fiscal savings in California marijuana law enforcement, 1976-1985, attributable to the Moscone Act of 1976, with comments on the effects of refelonization and Senate Bill 218. Testimony to the California Senate Judiciary Committee, April 7.

Atkeson, L 1987. The California battle for marijuana. Unpublished manuscript

Brownell. G.S. 1988. Marijuana and the law in California: A historical and political overview. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs Vol. 20(l).

Budman, K. 1977. A First Report of the Impact of California's New Marijuana Law (SB 95) (Requested by the California Legislature). Office of Narcotics and Drug Abuse, California Health and Welfare Agency, January.

California Senate Select Committee on Control of Marijuana. 1974.

Final Report, Marijuana: Beyond Misunderstanding. Sacramento: California Legislature.

Calof, L. 1968. The cost of enforcing the marijuana laws in California. In: Aldrich, M.R.; Mikuriya, T.H. & Brownell G.S. 1986. Preliminary Report:Fiscal Costs of California Marijuana Law Enforcement

1960-1984. Part 1: Arrest Costs. Berkeley, California: Medi-Comp Press.

Drug Abuse Council. 1,977. Marijuana survey-state of Oregon. News release, Washington, D.C., January 28.

Judicial Council of California. 1985. Annual Report to the Governor and the Legislature. San Francisco: Administrative Office of the Courts.

Mandel, J. 1987.Are lower penalties a green light for drug users? Journal of Psychoactive Drugs Vol. 19(4): 383-385.

Moscone, G. 1974. SB 95 (Moscone) as amended February 4, Health and Safety Code. Marijuana Infractions. History, Digest, Purpose, Comment Sacramento: California Legislature.

Uelman, G.F. 1976. California's new marijuana law: A sailing guide for uncharted waters. California State Bar Journal Vol. 51(l): 27-86.

* Curator, Fitz Hugh Ludlow Memorial Library, P.O. Box 640346, San Francisco, California 94164

** Psychiatrist and Substance Abuse Therapist, Berkeley, California



Back to the Articles page.

This URL: