Pubdate: Sun, 27 Jan 2008
Source: Times Argus (Barre, VT)
Copyright: 2008 Times Argus
Bookmark: (Marijuana)
Bookmark: (Decrim/Legalization)
Bookmark: (Drug Courts)


Interest in reform of the state's marijuana laws drew a sizable crowd
to a Senate hearing last week, suggesting widespread dissatisfaction
with current policy. But as they address the issue, senators ought to
view it less as a cultural litmus test than as one piece of a larger
review of state corrections and criminal justice policy.

At one end of the debate are the marijuana advocates who decry the
failure of "prohibition" and defend the unalienable right to get high.
That is not what this debate is about.

At the other end are the hard-nosed war-on-drug partisans who believe
any relaxation of the state's drug laws represents further surrender
to an overly permissive culture.

In between are most of us, who see prisons crowded with people whose
lives were hurt by drugs and whose crimes were sometimes caused by
drugs. Among these inmates are some whose crime was possession of the
drug itself, a victimless crime for which they are made to pay an
excessive penalty.

And yet as one prosecutor stated last week, the court system already
winnows out many of the small-time possession charges, directing
defendants to diversion or bargaining charges down. Even so, it makes
sense to bring the law into accord with practice and with common
sense. That means figuring out the level that constitutes minor
possession and sale and establishing civil penalties, like those for
traffic offenses.

Of course, if we were crafting laws from scratch, with an eye to
consistency and rationality, marijuana might not be an offense at all.
Who is to say that the occasional toke is worse than the occasional
drink? But given our recent history with drugs, people's fears and the
danger posed by other drugs, legalization is not going to happen. Is
American society really ready to have legal marijuana growers selling
to joint makers, with state stores supplying a public with its supply
of marijuana? Indulging that fantasy is futile. So given the perceived
need to keep marijuana use in check, particularly in order to keep it
out of the hands of kids, civil penalties are in order.

And yet the larger problem in Vermont is not the number imprisoned on
petty drug charges. It is the significant percentage of young
Vermonters who suffer the intertwined problems of poor literacy, lack
of job skills, inadequate family support and drug abuse. It is not
marijuana, the so-called gateway drug, that traps them in this miasma.
It is a background of poverty, poor education and family

These young men and, increasingly, young women have created Vermont's
crisis in corrections, gobbling up an ever-expanding share of the
state budget to house them behind walls. Gov. James Douglas and Sen.
Dick Sears of Bennington have been leaders in addressing the drug and
corrections policies that might answer the challenge posed by these
troubled Vermonters.

The increased role of drug courts, which guide defendants to treatment
rather than to prison, has been one valuable approach. Better drug
treatment inside prisons is also essential. As advocates of
decriminalization argue, getting people out of prison who don't need
to be there is also important, achieving the twin goals of saving the
state money and improving the prospects for defendants.

These changes have problems of their own. Monitoring inmates who are
out on probation or furlough and providing them with housing and
employment create challenges. Some cities and towns may also face the
challenge of providing residences for a high concentration of
convicted criminals. What impact does that have on the cities and towns?

Marijuana is one small part of this larger question. Common sense on
marijuana ought to be considered a gateway to common sense on the host
of criminal justice issues that are burdening the state. It appears
the Legislature and governor are heading in that direction.
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake