Pubdate: Sun, 20 Nov 2005
Source: Winston-Salem Journal (NC)
Copyright: 2005 Piedmont Publishing Co. Inc.
Note: The Journal does not publish letters from writers outside its 
daily home delivery circulation area.
Author: Scott Sexton
Bookmark: (Cannabis)
Bookmark: (Decrim/Legalization)
Bookmark: (Mandatory Minimum Sentencing)
Bookmark: (Treatment)


They were two different events in two distinctly separate settings, 
yet they might carry the same message.

The first happened Monday night at a gathering of deep thinkers 
deeply concerned about the enormous increase in the state's prison 
population. Burley Mitchell, the chief justice of the N.C. Supreme 
Court from 1995 to 1999, put it as plainly as he could in a 
presentation reported on by The Associated Press.

"What if we decriminalize drugs?" Mitchell asked. "If you knock out 
all the profits, then there would be no more Colombian cartel. There 
would be no more Mexican cartel. They would be broken."

The second played out in a Forsyth County courtroom last week. Bryant 
Lomont Gwynn, 26, was sentenced to life in prison after being 
convicted of first-degree murder and robbery with a dangerous weapon. 
Gwynn was accused of shooting Deshard Smart while robbing him of a 
pound of marijuana. If marijuana had been decriminalized, would that 
have removed the motive for killing Smart?

Would Smart be alive if there had been no economic incentive to shoot 
him? Legalizing vs. decriminalizing First, let's draw the distinction 
between legalizing drugs and decriminalizing certain drug offenses.

Legalizing drugs, advocates say, removes the criminal element and 
would allow the government to regulate sales. You could create a 
registry of users and have them get some type of permit to purchase 
them. You would have to be on drugs to buy that logic. Why would 
anybody want to make illicit drugs more accessible? Don't we have 
enough trouble with alcohol already?

Decriminalization makes more sense. Spend the money it costs to 
incarcerate somebody convicted of drug-possession charges on 
treatment instead. "We know that if we give them the Martha Stewart 
jewelry - the house arrest ankle bracelet - urine screens and 
treatment that we will have a success rate of over 65 percent to 70 
percent," said Bert Wood, the president of the Partnership for a 
Drug-Free N.C. treatment program. "They will do well in the community."

The numbers indicate that something has got to be done. According to 
the N.C. Sentencing Commission, the state will need 10,000 additional 
prison beds by 2010 if we keep locking people up at the present rate. 
As of Sept. 30, we had 1,906 people locked up for first-degree 
murder. At the same time, we had 3,279 people behind bars on 
nontrafficking drug offenses. Every one of those prisoners costs us 
about $26,500 a year. Figuring a solution You would expect a guy like 
Wood, who's spent more than 30 years working to fight drug abuse, to 
be in favor of treating nonviolent drug offenders. You might not 
expect it from Tom Keith, the county district attorney with a 
well-earned reputation for being hard on criminals. Though he is not 
quite advocating decriminalization, he does favor using common sense. 
"I don't have an answer for the drug problem," he said. "I believe in 
the drug-treatment court. There's a difference between a user and the 
trafficker. Hammer the trafficker."

Keith didn't go as far as Mitchell did Monday, when the former chief 
justice called the war on drugs "an utter failure."

"I have told the young people on my staff that you guys have to 
figure out a solution," Keith said. "My generation had no answer." 
The three-strikes law that locked up repeat offenders didn't curb the 
drug problem, nor did mandatory minimum sentences.

Those measures just crammed the prisons full. Is decriminalization 
the answer? Would it reduce the number of crimes committed to finance 
a drug habit? Would it keep people like Smart from dying? It's worth 
a try. What we've tried so far doesn't seem to be working too well.
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MAP posted-by: Beth Wehrman