Pubdate: Wed, 23 May 2012
Source: Express-Times, The (PA)
Copyright: 2012 The Express-Times


New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is adamant about getting low-level,
nonviolent drug offenders out of the criminal courts and into special
drug courts -- a move that would save the state millions and get
people into rehab programs, while avoiding lengthy criminal records.

The Legislature is taking a different path. This week an Assembly
committee unanimously approved a bill that would decriminalize
possession of small amounts of marijuana, making the punishment
similar to a traffic ticket. The Senate is preparing to consider a
similar bill.

Both these moves make sense and deserve to be enacted. Currently pot
smokers can get six months in jail, be fined up to $1,000 and lose
their driver's license under New Jersey law, along with a rap sheet
that can follow them for five years or more. The Assembly bill would
eliminate jail terms and criminal records for possession of a
half-ounce or less. Those under 18 would still be referred to family
court for simple possession. Those 18 to 21 would go through a drug
education program. Adults would face $150 fines for a first offense
and up to $500 for third and subsequent offenses.

Most New Jerseyans are on board with this. Six of 10 residents say
they favor decriminalization for personal amounts, according to recent
a Eagleton poll. More than half say there should be no penalties for
low-level use and possession.

Decriminalization isn't legalization. Stiff penalties would remain in
effect for possession of larger amounts and distribution.

Still, most of the people who are charged for having a few joints or
smoking paraphernalia aren't a threat to society. The courts and
corrections system shouldn't be spending time and resources on these

That's not to say marijuana is harmless. Stoned drivers are threats on
the highways. Smoking pot is damaging to kids, especially, because it
can sap motivation. Yet many adults use it recreationally with little
or no ill effects -- except when they run into the prohibitionist arm
of the law.

The benefits of marijuana as a medicinal therapy are recognized, too,
for people suffering from specific conditions and diseases. Two years
ago New Jersey gave the go-ahead for a medical marijuana program; its
implementation has been delayed by Christie's insistence on strictly
limiting distribution and narrowing the qualifications for a doctor's

In Pennsylvania, legalization of medical pot and decriminalization
have few backers in the Legislature. Possession of small amounts
remains a misdemeanor, punishable by 30 days in jail and a $500 fine,
along with a criminal record. Fourteen states have decriminalized
varying amounts.

In Trenton, a spokesman for Christie declined to comment on the
decriminalization bill. It seems likely that common-sense changes in
the state's drug laws could be dragged down by political gamesmanship
between the Republican governor and majority Democrats in both houses.

That shouldn't be allowed to happen. Drug courts and decriminalization
go hand in hand, and together would restore some sanity to a
needlessly punitive "drug war" approach to marijuana.
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