Monday, November 10, 2008

Is Marijuana Legalization on the Horizon?

I think maybe it is. This article is in reference to the just passed Question 2 in Massachusetts.

Daily News Tribune

Evans: Question 2 landslide opens drug policy debate

By Richard M. Evans, Guest columnist
Posted Nov 09, 2008 @ 12:30 AM

Don't look now, but the resounding two-to-one victory of Question 2, the marijuana decriminalization initiative, may well turn out to be a blessing to Gov. Deval Patrick and the legislature as they face the current fiscal reckoning.

It's not that the new law will save a lot of money - the proponents claimed around $30 million, but even that will not make a big difference. What makes a big difference is that for the first time, voters statewide have gone on record as supporting drug policy reform, providing the first opportunity in decades to rethink the laws that have flooded our courts, packed our prisons and strained our treasuries.

There are around 25,000 prisoners in Massachusetts state and county facilities, of which some 20 percent are drug law violators. It costs $43,000 to incarcerate one prisoner for a year. That $215 million is real money, and doesn't even include costs of detection, apprehension, and prosecution.

Under the escalating drug war, costs have skyrocketed to the point that the Commonwealth grotesquely now spends as much money for incarceration as for higher education. Illicit drug use, however, has leveled out at around 10 percent of the adult population, and of those users, only around .03 percent of them are caught. Contrast that with the 40 percent arrest rate for violent crimes and 10 percent for property crimes. In terms of efficacy alone, current laws - largely a legacy of generations past - do not have much to commend them. The demand and supply of drugs hold steady.

Serious rethinking might begin with a close look at who, exactly, the drug offenders are, and whether the public safety requires their imprisonment. The time has come for legislative triage, distinguishing between the people who pose a risk to others, and those who, in the words of Georgia Corrections Commissioner Jim Donald, "we're just mad at." Reform should distinguish between predatory criminals who violate the rights of others, and non-predatory offenders whose consensual conduct is complained of only by the police.

Ronald Reagan, naturally, said it clearly: "Government exists to protect us from each other. Where government has gone beyond its limits is in deciding to protect us from ourselves." Purging the criminal justice system of people we are protecting from themselves could free up hundreds of millions in criminal justice and incarceration savings, without threatening the public safety.

Hopefully leaders will now emerge, not only in politics, but in the media, education, and certainly in law enforcement to guide a new public discussion of this thorny but necessary topic. A good place to start is with some crucial questions that, until the Question 2 vote, few were ready to confront:

-- Is it realistic to think that continuing to pour vast resources into detection, enforcement, prosecution and punishment, we will ever achieve success in the struggle against illegal drugs?

-- When we are "successful," how many more people will be locked up, and at what cost to taxpayers?

-- Where, exactly, is the line between abhorrent conduct we punish and abhorrent conduct we tolerate?

-- Does it make sense to conflate the concepts of drug use, drug abuse and drug addiction?

For decades, few politicians have dared to criticize the laws lest they be branded "soft on drugs" in the next election. But in an era of evaporating public resources, the question is no longer whether drug offenders deserve our scorn, but whether they deserve our hospitality at $43,000 per year.

Billions have been spent in a mighty effort to fight and condemn drugs. Question 2 may well provide an historic opportunity to come to terms with them.

Richard M. Evans is an attorney practicing in Northampton.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

There is a campaign to prove there is a critical mass in this country who think that we should have the same laws for marijuana that we have alcohol. Once we prove there are enough of us, changing the policy should be easy. Sign up here: Marijuana legalization.