Pubdate: Fri, 08 Jul 2011
Source: Philadelphia Daily News (PA)
Copyright: 2011 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.


LYNNE ABRAHAM doesn't get it. She didn't get it when she was 
Philadelphia's district attorney from 1991 until last year.

And she'll probably never get it, no matter how many statistics and 
reports show that America's 40-year-old "war on drugs" has been a 
hugely expensive and crime-inducing failure.

"My view remains unchanged with regard to drug abuse," Abraham, 70, 
said from her office at the Archer & Greiner law firm, where the 
bulldoggish ex-prosecutor is now a partner.

Her view is that people who smoke marijuana - by far the most widely 
used illicit drug in the United States - are violent deviants, 
roaming Philly's streets with deadly weapons, killing witnesses and 
committing "untold numbers of crimes" to support their habit.

They are the enemy, Abraham and other old-school politicians still 
insist, even as forward-thinking cities and states are 
decriminalizing marijuana possession, and polls show that public 
support for legalizing pot has nearly quadrupled in the U.S. since 
President Richard Nixon declared drug abuse "public enemy No. 1" in 1971.

"Don't tell me about polls. I don't want to hear it," Abraham 
groused. "People want to drive 100 miles an hour. They want to smoke 
pot. They want to do everything!"

Or maybe, as a growing number of politicians and law-enforcement 
officials now realize, Americans just don't want to continue paying 
for the arrest, prosecution and imprisonment of nonviolent drug offenders.

Fortunately for Philadelphia taxpayers, Seth Williams does get it.

Williams, who replaced Abraham as district attorney in January 2010, 
has saved an estimated $2 million in the past year by diverting 
thousands of marijuana-possession cases into a new program that 
processes pot smokers quickly and leaves them with a clean record.

'Smarter way'

The Small Amount of Marijuana (SAM) program, which Williams 
implemented in June 2010, frees up prosecutors to concentrate on more 
serious crimes by treating arrests for marijuana possession of up to 
30 grams - slightly more than an ounce - as a summary offense, rather 
than a misdemeanor. The misdemeanor charge carried a maximum penalty 
of 30 days' probation or jail time and a $500 fine.

Few minor pot arrests resulted in jail time even under the old 
system, but those found guilty of possession were left with a 
permanent criminal record.

Now, marijuana offenders pay $200 for a three-hour class about drug 
abuse, and their record is expunged. No trial, no judge, no 
court-appointed defense attorneys, no prosecutor, no lab tests to 
confirm the "leafy green substance" is actually marijuana, no cops 
getting paid overtime to testify.

"We were spending thousands of dollars for when someone possessed $10 
or $15 worth of weed," Williams said of the way marijuana cases were 
prosecuted when he was elected. "It just didn't make any sense."

Approximately 4,160 defendants enrolled in the SAM program during its 
first year, according to Jodi Lobel, deputy of the D.A.'s Pretrial 
Division. "We decided to design a smarter way," Lobel said.

Last week, defendants trickled out of Room 404 at the Criminal 
Justice Center after a trial commissioner had briefly explained the 
SAM program. The vast majority now take that option over a formal trial.

"I didn't even get to smoke it," Crystal Roberts smirked, with a 
touch of wistfulness.

The 21-year-old bartender was arrested last month with a few nickel 
bags of weed. She grumbled about the cost of the drug class she'd 
have to attend, but was glad that the SAM program would be quick and simple.

"This is better than going to trial," Roberts admitted.

Lobel cringes at the word "decriminalization," insisting that pot 
remains illegal in Philadelphia. But the SAM program is, in effect, 
backdoor decriminalization. Offenders who complete the program are 
not tagged with a criminal record, even though they technically 
committed a crime.

Cops switching sides

Last week, Connecticut became the 14th state to enact some form of 
marijuana decriminalization, and many activists see the building 
momentum as an indication that it's only a matter of time before 
marijuana is legalized.

What Abraham and other aging veterans of the war on drugs don't 
realize is how much they have in common with those now making the 
most rational argument for declaring a cease-fire. Not the pot 
smokers and civil libertarians, but the law-enforcement officials 
who've spent their careers in the trenches, locking up drug users and 
getting into shootouts with corner dealers - with nothing to show for it.

"You make an enormous seizure of drugs and the streets don't even 
blink," said Neill Franklin, who spent 33 years with the Maryland 
State Police and the Baltimore Police Department, including a stint 
as a narcotics agent.

"You don't have to do some in-depth study from where we sit in law 
enforcement. It's clearly not working," said Franklin, now executive 
director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), an 
organization of former cops, prosecutors and judges fighting to end 
drug prohibition.

Franklin doesn't get high and doesn't think you should either. But he 
wants to end a national drug policy that has inadvertently fostered 
urban street crime, enriched drug cartels, driven up prison costs and 
drained resources that could be used to educate children or reduce 
violent crime.

"Drug prohibition is the biggest failed policy in the history of our 
country, second only to slavery," said Jim Gray, a former Superior 
Court judge in Orange County, Calif., now working with LEAP.

In Portugal, which decriminalized all drugs in 2001 and increased 
social services, drug addiction is declining, studies show.

"The policy has been a success using every possible metric that drug 
policymakers use," said Glenn Greenwald, who authored a 2009 Cato 
Institute study on Portugal's experiment.

Having recently returned from a trip to Australia on an Eisenhower 
Fellowship, Williams talks about a government-run, heroin-shooting 
facility in Sydney and how it is "saving lives" by preventing fatal 
overdoses and the spread of intravenous diseases. He talks about 
helping drug addicts get clean, rather than turning them into 
unemployable criminals.

"I can put someone in jail for 90 days because they possess crack. 
But if we don't get them the help they need for their addiction, when 
they get out of jail, they're just going to be a 90-day-older crack 
addict," Williams said. "We have to treat drug addiction as a 
public-health problem, not just a criminal-justice problem."

Arrests down

In the early 1970s, about eight in 10 Americans opposed marijuana 
legalization, according to Gallup's annual crime poll. Today, 50 
percent are opposed and 46 percent support legalization.

Imagine the revenue generated by strictly regulating and taxing 
marijuana, a drug that is already available on the black market to 
virtually anyone who wants it. It's an old idea, but one that is 
gaining support as states slash their budgets and the recreational 
use of marijuana becomes less taboo.

In its first year, Philadelphia's quasi-decriminalization of 
marijuana doesn't appear to be having any noticeable impact on the 
city's quality of life, police say.

Marijuana-possession arrests were down 14 percent through May 31 
compared with the same period as last year, but it is unclear if 
that's because of the SAM program, which went into effect in June 2010.

Lt. Ray Evers, a police spokesman, denied that street cops are 
backing off minor pot cases.

"If officers find drugs on an individual, they're going to get locked 
up, plain and simple," he said.

That's what happened to Chris McKoy, 23, a construction worker from 
South Philly who was busted with $15 worth of pot last month and 
opted for the SAM program.

McKoy was slightly perplexed when he walked out of the Criminal 
Justice Center last week. Why, he asked, was he arrested at all if 
he's being discharged without a trial and will have no criminal record?

"Weed don't even do nothing," he said, "but make you happy, hungry and sleepy."

McKoy said the arrest wouldn't alter his lifestyle. Besides, he said, 
he's Muslim, so he's expecting some type of deferred punishment, anyway.

"Every time I smoke, I'm a sinner," he chuckled. "Just once in a while."
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MAP posted-by: Keith Brilhart