Pubdate: Thu, 09 Dec 2010
Source: Equinox, The (NH Edu)
Copyright: 2010 The Equinox
Author: Andrew Reynolds
Bookmark: (Decrim/Legalization)


November's midterm elections included ballot measures in five states 
that would either legalize or decriminalize marijuana. Even though 
every measure failed, the results show that a substantial support 
base for marijuana reform may exist and perhaps is ready to be heard.

In California voters rejected the idea of legalizing and taxing 
marijuana represented by Proposition 19. However, 46 percent of 
voters voted in favor of the measure.

Consider the 12 states that have already passed decriminalization 
legislation, which converts small marijuana-related offenses from 
criminal offenses to civil infractions or fines.

According to Keene State College Political Science Professor and N.H. 
State Representative Chuck Weed, throwing marijuana-related offenders 
in jail for a "victimless crime" is unacceptable.

"It is not unsafe; it hasn't killed anybody. All of the studies 
suggest that it's certainly less addictive than alcohol, less 
addictive than tobacco. No one has died from overdoses," Weed said. 
"Yet, an awful lot of people have their lives ruined because of being 
thrown in jail, and that isn't appropriate," he added.

Richard Van Wickler, Superintendent of the Cheshire County House of 
Corrections, said the prohibition of marijuana-as well as all of the 
other illicit drugs-is a failed policy, causing more problems and 
harms than it alleviates.

"In my opinion, not only has it not been effective, but it's been a 
cataclysmic failure and not only for New Hampshire, but for our 
nation, and also as a global policy," Van Wickler said. "I don't 
believe that you can find anybody in law enforcement, anybody in the 
community, anybody anywhere, that would tell you that the war on 
drugs is a success in any way."

Van Wickler, a member of the drug-reform organization called Law 
Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), said that the organization 
advocates legalization, comparing America's current drug prohibition 
to the alcohol prohibition era of 1920 to 1933.

"It was the same experiment-make it illegal and the problems 
associated will go away. Well, we all know that didn't happen and we 
learned that prohibition fueled crime," Van Wickler said. "Drugs and 
drug use is not problem. Prohibition is the problem," he said.

According to Van Wickler, the Drug Enforcement Agency found that 75 
percent of gang violence in the United States is over illegal drug 
marketplace disputes-"the same exact thing Al Capone was doing during 
alcohol prohibition," he said. "What we learned is, if we legalize 
the substance, we immediately take the profit away from the 
criminals, the criminal enterprise, and they're no longer in control."

With any form of prohibition, the $320 billion a year drug industry 
remains in a criminal marketplace. Because of this, Van Wickler said 
LEAP does not advocate decriminalization because it doesn't solve 
prohibitions problems and it "continues to leave the drug market in 
the hands of criminals."

"LEAP does not advocate the use of drugs. I don't advocate the use of 
drugs. I don't use drugs. I don't think anybody should use drugs. 
But, the fact is, if you leave it in the hands of criminals, you're 
going to consistently have the failures that we've seen over the last 
40 years," he said.

According to Van Wickler, some major problems associated with 
prohibition include the exploding prison population, excessive cost 
to taxpayers, and a waste of resources.

He said in the United States, 1.8 million people have been arrested 
for drug offenses, of which 850,000 are estimated to be non-violent offenders.

"The other statistic that's alarming is when you consider that 40 
percent of the jails in the United States have been built in the last 
25 years. And, violent crime is at a 30-year low," said Van Wickler.

In addition, he said that 50 percent of all criminal justice 
resources go toward the drug war. "But, we don't fight rape, armed 
robbery, extortion, embezzlement, or obesity to that degree," he said.

He also said that the United States is less committed to promoting 
education as it is committed to the "war on drugs." Given the fact 
that the State of California built 21 new prisons over a five-year 
period while building only one new university over the same period, 
he said the United States concentrates about $70 billion a year on 
building correctional systems.

"If you say, 'I don't use drugs. My kids don't use drugs. My friends 
don't use drugs. Why should I care about the drug war? The answer is, 
you're paying for it," he said.

LEAP, according to Van Wickler, advocates for all out legalization 
and government regulation to take the drug market away from the 
criminal enterprises and to create a safer path for users to find and 
use the drugs. By legalizing, he also said he thinks jails would be 
far less congested and taxes would be cut dramatically.

"We know that 12 percent of the people that are incarcerated 
committed their crime for the sole purpose they needed money for 
drugs. So if drugs were affordable, regulated, clean, and people 
could access them, it is a safe assumption that 12 percent of the 
people that are in prison today wouldn't be. Now you've got the 
850,000 that you arrest for possession that would not be there. So 
quickly you can see the impact of what legalization would do," he said.

"We have to suppose that throughout the history of the world, there's 
been a percentage of the population that has a propensity to get 
wasted. That percentage has been constant. There's something about 
altering our consciousness that, as a population, a percentage of us 
are going to do, regardless of what the laws are," Van Wickler 
said."I propose we accept that as a cultural norm-that a percentage 
of the population is going to have a propensity to use these 
substances. If we're humane about it, then we should provide a clean, 
regulated substance," he said.

Dr. Peter Stevenson, a KSC sociology professor and former law 
enforcement official, said that the enforcement aspects involved in 
keeping marijuana prohibited seem to be a "waste of resources."

"We've increased enforcement. We've increased penalties. What have we 
gotten for that? Nothing, really," said Stevenson, a proponent of 
marijuana law reform. "The war on drugs, especially with marijuana 
has sort of failed," he said.

Besides clogging America's jails, taking time and dedication from 
enforcement agencies, and casually incinerating American taxpayers' 
money, Stevenson said the war on drugs hasn't produced a substantial 
return to its investors.

According to a 2005 report by The Sentencing Project, an estimated 
$600 million of taxpayers' money is spent annually to keep marijuana 
offenders in prison. Also according to the report, nearly 90 percent 
of the estimated 27,900 people in state and federal prison sentenced 
over a marijuana violation have no history of violence. According to 
an Associated Press article published in May 2010, the U.S. 
government has dedicated $121 billion to arrest more than 37 million 
nonviolent drug offenders since 1970, of which 10 million offenders 
were arrested for possessing marijuana. Last year, half of all 
federal prisoners were serving sentences for drug convictions. The 
Associated Press also reported that $450 billion was spent since 1970 
just to keep those predominantly nonviolent, first-time drug 
offenders in federal prisons.

"I'm more along the line of just outright legalization. You should 
probably just be able to do whatever you want," Stevenson said.

What stands in the way? Stevenson said he thinks that a generation of 
people, specifically law enforcement officials, was trained to hate 
drugs. By adhering to their sworn oath to protect the state 
constitution, those "drug warriors" remain vehemently allied against 
marijuana reform. However, he also said the police officers that do 
come to realize that the law is faulty are often pressured into 
staying silent because of fears that speaking out will hurt their careers.

"I think privately, a lot of cops are for some kind of reform, but 
they won't say anything because they won't get promoted," said 
Stevenson. "Most cops take their sworn oath to enforce the 
constitution very seriously even though they might not like what 
they're doing."

John Stewart, Keene Police officer and KSC's liaison to the police 
department said he thinks that decriminalizing marijuana in Keene 
would cause more problems, especially among Keene's younger demographic.

"I think it's going to be more of an impact on the younger kids who 
don't understand what the ramifications are from smoking marijuana," 
Stewart said.

According to a 2006 state drug profile done by the Office of National 
Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), more than half of 11th and 12th grade 
New Hampshire students said that they had tried marijuana at least 
once in their lifetime. From the same study, nearly 45 percent of all 
high school students-grades 9 to 12-say that they've tried marijuana 
at least once.

Stewart also said that decriminalization efforts in Keene would cause 
people to use it more frequently and use it more publicly."I think it 
would probably cause more problems because people would engage in it 
more. People would do it more openly," he said.

Then again, there have been studies finding that decriminalizing 
marijuana did not impact the rate of use. For example, a 1999 report 
in the Journal of Public Health Policy documented the effects of 
marijuana decriminalization on 11 states that reduced the offense to 
a fine between 1973 and 1978.

The study, authored by Eric Single, concluded that decriminalization 
had no impact on rates of use, but "substantially reduced the costs 
associated with the enforcement of marijuana laws."

Up to this point, no state governments have passed legislation that 
legalizes marijuana. However, 12 states have passed decriminalization 
bills and 15 states allow medicinal marijuana treatments. Neighboring 
states such as Maine, Massachusetts, and New York are some of the 
states that have already decriminalized marijuana.

Before the most recent attempt to decriminalize marijuana was 
defeated last year in the State Senate, the New Hampshire legislature 
rejected a similar decriminalization bill as well as a medical 
marijuana bill in 2008-all of which included similar veto threats 
from Governor John Lynch. For now, the possession of marijuana will 
remain a criminal offense, which makes it difficult for convicted 
marijuana offenders to find a good job and access financial aid for college.

According to Stewart, however, when he encounters a marijuana-related 
offender, the penalties are dependent on a number of criteria. Things 
like the history of the offender, the amount of marijuana in 
possession, and the circumstances surrounding the arrest determine 
how heavy the punishment will be.

"It depends on the totality of the circumstances. For example, I've 
gone to dorm rooms where the kid is like, 'Hey, this is what I have. 
I'm sorry.' That is going to weigh in on the outcome versus the 
person who refuses to cooperate," Stewart said.

"The last thing we want to do is charge someone with marijuana 
because it's a criminal offense," he said. "It screws up the rest of 
their lives because then they have to check off, 'Yes, I've been 
arrested for drugs' on applications."

Consequences on the federal level also include the Higher Education 
Act's "one-strike and you're out" rule regarding convicted drug 
offenders' access to federal student aid. However, Stewart said he 
thinks people deserve a second chance.

"I'm of the viewpoint that everybody falls down. I don't agree with 
the 'one-strike, you're out.' I think that there are different 
circumstances," he said.

"I think it should be maybe 'two-strikes your out' instead of one. We 
should at least say, 'You fell down. Get back up. Move in the right 
direction.' Then again, if the federal government is going to give 
you money, you have to follow the rules," Stewart said.

According to Stevenson, one of the major reasons that marijuana 
prohibition will continue is the fact that corporate interests are at 
stake. "Alcohol and tobacco companies have better lobby groups. 
That's what it boils down to. These are corporate interests and 
corporations are going to protect their interests," he said.

"If it weren't for the tobacco farmers, we wouldn't be sitting here 
today talking about marijuana decriminalization," he said.

Van Wickler agreed, saying, "The largest drug dealer in the State of 
New Hampshire is the State of New Hampshire because they own and 
control all of the liquor stores. When you cross into New Hampshire, 
the first sign that you see is 'Don't drink and drive.' The first 
building you see is a liquor store. Any road that you take coming 
into New Hampshire, that's the deal," he said.

"In New Hampshire, that's state revenue. They're not going to give it 
up," Van Wickler said.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom