Prosecutors and Politics Project Releases New Report on Enforcement of Marijuana Laws

May 1, 2023

UNC School of Law’s Prosecutors and Politics Project released a report today analyzing the enforcement of laws criminalizing the personal possession of marijuana. “Enforcing Marijuana Prohibitions: Prosecutorial Policy in Four States” presents the results of a joint study with the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law, which examined both enforcement policies and the reasoning behind those policies in Indiana, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas.

“This report provides a rare glimpse into the black box of prosecutorial decision-making,” says Carissa Byrne Hessick, director of the Prosecutors and Politics Project and Anne Shea Ransdell and William Garland “Buck” Ransdell, Jr. Distinguished Professor of Law. “We conducted an original survey of both sitting prosecutors and candidates who ran for prosecutor in 2022. The results of that study tell us quite a lot about how drug laws are actually enforced, why different prosecutors adopt different enforcement policies, and the local politics behind enforcing prohibitions on a drug that has been decriminalized by a large number of states.”

The study reveals six major findings:

  • Very few incumbent and non-incumbent candidates have adopted policies or platforms of full enforcement.
  • Practical concerns drive the adoption of less than full or ordinary enforcement policies.
  • Policies or platforms of less than full enforcement could be found across political parties and in both urban and rural jurisdictions. Democratic candidates were most likely to indicate adoption of less than ordinary enforcement.
  • Incumbents are more likely to believe that marijuana enforcement promotes public safety, while non-incumbent candidates are more likely to view enforcement as detrimental to public safety.
  • Non-incumbent candidates were more likely to believe their voters favored decriminalization. 
  • Very little information on marijuana possession enforcement is available to the public.

According to Hessick, the report sheds important light on current debates over both prosecutorial power and drug policy.  “Many urban prosecutors are facing intense criticism for their decisions not to fully enforce the law,” Hessick explained.  “This study suggests that, at least when it comes to marijuana, it is common for prosecutors to quietly underenforce criminal laws.”

Hessick believes the study could help inform debates over marijuana decriminalization.  “Some of the states in our study are actively considering whether to decriminalize marijuana. The fact that so many prosecutors find it impractical to fully enforce marijuana crimes may convince lawmakers that decriminalization is inevitable.”

The Prosecutors and Politics Project is a research initiative at the University of North Carolina School of Law. Founded in 2018, the project studies the role of prosecutors in the criminal justice system, focusing on both the political aspects of their selection and their political power.

The Drug Enforcement and Policy Center at the Ohio State University Moritz College of Law helps shape and enrich public conversations about the intersecting fields of criminal justice and drug policy and enforcement, and their historical and modern impact on society. Center faculty and staff examine criminal and civil laws, policies, and enforcement efforts related to traditionally illicit drugs, with a particular focus on marijuana laws and reform efforts.