Pubdate: Sun, 09 Nov 2008
Source: Milford Daily News, The (MA)
Copyright: 2008 The Milford Daily News
Author: Richard M. Evans, Guest columnist
Note: Richard M. Evans is an attorney practicing in Northampton
Bookmark: (Cannabis)
Bookmark: (Decrim/Legalization)


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.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Larry Seguin