I smell something funny in the fiscal impact statements on the marijuana-related ballot measures currently being petitioned around South Dakota.
The Legislative Research Council has determined that the measure from South Dakotans Against Prohibition to decriminalize possession of marijuana would result in 3,174 fewer convictions each year. The LRC does not break down how many of those convictions currently result in prison time, but it concludes that the net savings on court and incarceration would $731,742 per year. That’s $230.54 per conviction.
The LRC previously analyzed the fiscal impacts of Bob Newland’s proposals to penalize the transfer of alcohol and tobacco the same as the transfer of marijuana. The LRC concluded that the alcohol ban would convict 685 people a year and put 417 of them in the pokey, at an annual cost of $4,753,805. That’s $6,939.86 per alcohol conviction. The tobacco ban would convict 263 and incarcerate 161 at a cost of $1,840,181. That’s $6,996.89 per tobacco conviction.
Newland’s measures propose the same level penalties for alcohol and tobacco as are currently authorized for marijuana. Yet the LRC calculates that the cost of those new alcohol and tobacco convictions would be 30 times the cost of current marijuana convictions.
Also strangely, while far more people in South Dakota use alcohol or tobacco than use marijuana (just among kids in 2012–2013, 6.2% used marijuana, 8.0% smoked tobacco, and 17.8% engaged in binge drinking), the LRC calculates that alcohol convictions under the Newland proposal would equal less than a quarter of the marijuana convictions averted by decriminalization; tobacco convictions, a mere twelfth.
If we apply the average cost per conviction cited in the two bans, decriminalizing marijuana and taking 3,174 convictions off the books each year should save the state of South Dakota $1,121,420,000. $1.1 billion—that can’t be true, since the entire FY2016 corrections budget is only $94 million; the entire general fund budgets $1.4 billion. The ACLU estimates that the national cost of enforcing marijuana laws is $3.6 billion. The LRC’s numbers for the cost of marijuana convictions thus seem more reasonable than the extrapolation I get from the costs for alcohol and tobacco prohibition. I would thus tentatively conclude that the LRC has overstated the costs of convictions under Newland’s proposals while underestimating the number of convictions (unless the LRC is editorializing that the Attorney General would not prosecute alcohol and tobacco bans with the same vigor as the current marijuana ban).
But at least on those measures we have numbers to analyze. Turning to medical marijuana, the LRC says the measure from New Approach South Dakota (which says it now has an office and 7,240 signatures) would “prevent a number of marijuana convictions.” The LRC does not tell us that number, diverging from the specificity of the decriminalization measure and the other two marijuana-related measures. Instead, this fiscal impact statement concludes that legalizing medical marijuana has caused more marijuana use, dependence, and abuse. Thus, with more people going to jail for recreational marijuana use, the medical cannabis initiative “will likely have a minimal net impact on prison and jail costs.”
Notice that the LRC did not work that hard on the other measures, trying to estimate social effects that would lead to other convictable crimes.
My experience with other issues is that the Legislative Research Council is a bastion of reliable and independent legal analysis. The strange numbers in the fiscal statements on the marijuana-related ballot measures suggests the LRC has slipped a bit… or at least has done some math it hasn’t explained.