Pubdate: Mon, 11 Feb 2008
Source: Foster's Daily Democrat (NH)
Copyright: 2008 Geo. J. Foster Co.
Author: Paul Armentano
Bookmark: (Decrim/Legalization)


Community Commentary:

As a native New Englander, I've followed New  Hampshire's brewing 
debate over marijuana law  enforcement with close interest. As 
someone who has  examined the impact of marijuana laws on human 
behavior  for more than a dozen years, I'm supportive of those  who 
wish to reclassify minor pot offenses from a  criminal misdemeanor to 
a civil fine.

According to government surveys, an estimated 98  million Americans 
- -- nearly half the U.S. population --  have smoked marijuana. 
Clearly, criminal prohibitions  outlawing pot possession have done 
little to curb  Americans' desire for, use of or access to this drug. 
Conversely, enforcing this prohibition has incurred  significant 
fiscal and emotional costs.

In 2006, the last year for which national data is  available, law 
enforcement arrested over 829,000  persons for marijuana violations - 
the highest annual  total ever recorded. Of those arrested, 
approximately  90 percent were charged with minor marijuana 
possession only, not trafficking or sale.

Of course, not everyone busted for possessing small  amounts of pot 
receives jail time -- most do not. But  that doesn't mean that they 
don't suffer significant  hardships stemming from their arrest. 
Seldom emphasized  penalties associated with a minor marijuana 
conviction include probation and mandatory drug testing, loss 
of  employment, loss of child custody, removal from  subsidized 
housing, asset forfeiture, loss of federal  student aid, loss of 
voting privileges, loss of  adoption rights, and the loss of certain 
federal  welfare benefits such as food stamps. Thousands 
of  Americans suffer such sanctions every day -- at a rate  of one 
person every 38 seconds.

New Hampshire legislators can end this  counterproductive practice by 
moving forward with  legislation, House Bill 1623, that would replace 
existing criminal sanctions with civil penalties,  punishable by a fine only.

Specifically, this bill would impose a civil penalty of  no more than 
$200 upon first-time offenders found  guilty of possessing up to 1.25 
ounces of marijuana.  (Under current law the possession or of any 
amount of  cannabis is a misdemeanor offense punishable by up to  one 
year in jail and a $2,000 fine.) Numerous states,  including Maine, 
Mississippi, and Ohio have had similar  policies on the books for 
over two decades.

Naturally, critics of such a move warn that  decriminalizing cannabis 
will increase pot use among  New Hampshire's young people. Such 
concerns, while  understandable, are not supported by epidemiological 
evidence. Passage of similar legislation elsewhere has  not led to 
increased marijuana use or altered  adolescents' perceptions 
regarding the potential harms  of drug use.

In fact, the only U.S. government study ever  commissioned to assess 
whether the enforcement of  strict legal penalties positively impacts 
marijuana use  found, "Overall, the preponderance of the evidence 
which we have gathered and examined points to the  conclusion that 
decriminalization has had virtually no  effect either on the 
marijuana use or on related  attitudes and beliefs about marijuana 
use among American young people."

Most recently, a 2008 state-sponsored report by the  city of Seattle, 
Wash., found that the implementation  of a 2003 voter-approved 
ordinance making investigation  and prosecution of minor marijuana 
offenders the city's  "lowest law enforcement priority" has not been 
associated with any increase in drug-related crimes or  drug use.

Since the law's passage, there has been "no evident  increase in 
marijuana use among youth and young adults;  no evident increase in 
crime; and no adverse impact on  public health" the report found. In 
addition, "There is  some evidence of arguably positive effects of 
the implementation of I-75, [including,] fewer adults  experiencing 
the consequences of involvement in the  criminal justice system due 
to their personal use of  marijuana; and a small reduction in the 
amount of  public safety resources dedicated to marijuana  possession 
cases and a corresponding slight increase in  availability of these 
resources for other public safety  priorities."

Millions of Americans and tens of thousands of New  Hampshire's 
citizens have used marijuana at some point  in their lives. Most 
consume cannabis responsibly, in  the privacy of their own homes, and 
in a manner similar  to alcohol. House Bill 1623 reflects this 
reality rather than denying it.

Paul Armentano

Deputy Director

National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws

Washington, D.C.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom