Pubdate: Mon, 28 May 2012
Source: Daily Journal, The (Vineland, NJ)
Copyright: 2012 Daily Journal
Author: Michael Symons
Bookmark: (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition)
Bookmark: (Cole, Jack)


TRENTON - Drug-free school zones were shrunk. Marijuana was legalized 
for medicinal purposes, though still isn't available yet. And now 
lawmakers are mulling whether to make the penalties for possessing a 
small amount of pot - enough to roll around 30 joints - akin to a 
parking ticket.

A quarter-century after New Jersey stepped up its "war on drugs" and 
swelled its prison system though mandatory-minimum sentences, the 
state clearly is moving in the opposite direction - though advocates 
for the changes insist they don't want drugs legalized, only punished 
more moderately.

"Currently there is a network of penalties in place that really are 
designed to ruin people's lives," said attorney Rachel Cotroni, a 
board member at NORML NJ. "We're not saying legalize it. We're saying 
let's put together a framework of penalties that are reasonable and 
create a punishment that fits the crime."

Frank Fulbrook, an activist from Camden, says: "We need to move to a 
more sensible approach of not 'tough on crime' vs. 'soft on crime,' 
but 'smart on crime' vs. 'stupid on crime.' I would argue every 
prohibition law in American history is an example of being stupid on crime."

State spending on the Department of Corrections exceeds $1 billion 
annually, although it actually has declined slightly for the last two 
years. Long-term spending growth has tapered off, up by less than 16 
percent over the past 10 years after having increased by more than 46 
percent in the decade before that.

The surge, as well as the leveling off, is reflected in patterns in 
the size of the prison population - driven mostly, though not 
exclusively, by people locked up for drug crimes.

In the mid-'80s, New Jersey adopted the "Comprehensive Drug Reform 
Act of 1986," imposing mandatory minimum sentences for manufacturing, 
distributing, dispensing or possessing controlled dangerous 
substances. A year later, the state adopted a law designating the 
area within 1,000 feet of a school a drug-free zone with mandatory 
minimum prison terms.

Between then and 1998, the inmate population of convicted drug 
offenders increased by an average of more than 17 percent annually. 
Not only were more drug offenders being sent to prison, but their 
stays were made longer.

Drug offenders accounted for 10 percent of the prison population in 
1987, just after the drug laws were changed. That grew quickly to 30 
percent within four years, as the number of people locked up for drug 
crimes grew from around 1,360 at the start of 1987 to more than 5,100 
at the start of 1991. It then doubled to around 10,400 by early 1999, 
peaking at 36 percent of the state's prison population in 2002 - when 
it began to decline as inmates started to reach the end of their 
mandatory-minimum terms.

Since 1999, the number of inmates for whom a drug charge is their 
most serious offense has dropped by half. Most of that decline has 
occurred since 2007. In the past five years, the number of 
drug-related inmates is down by more than 5,200, which exceeds the 
3,500 drop in the overall prison population. 'It's crazy'

Jack Cole, a retired New Jersey State Police detective lieutenant who 
is now chairman of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, said the 
emphasis on drugs can be traced to 1970, when President Richard Nixon 
got Congress to begin funding a "war on drugs." He said New Jersey 
got so much federal funding that the state police's seven-man 
narcotics unit was expanded within two weeks to a 76-person bureau, 
in which he worked undercover. That funding came with an expectation 
that drug cases also would rise exponentially.

Cole laughed at the idea that changes like those occurring in New 
Jersey suggest the war on drugs is ending.

"Oh, good Lord, no. It's nowhere near over," Cole said. He noted $1.5 
trillion has been spent over four decades and 46 million arrests made 
of nonviolent drug offenders - and that after all that, the same 
percentage of the population, 1.3 percent, is addicted to drugs as 
was in 1914 and 1970. Even more concerning is that police solve far 
fewer major crimes now than ever before, he said.

"And yet here we are chasing around a bunch of nonviolent marijuana 
offenders. It's nuts. It's crazy," Cole said. "And New Jersey is 
worse that national statistics. Nationally, police solved 61 percent 
of the murders in 2009, but in New Jersey they only solved 53 percent 
of the murders."

Statistics aren't available for the number of people locked up 
specifically for marijuana. But Roseanne Scotti of the Drug Policy 
Alliance, which supports more lenient drug laws, said last week that 
roughly 22,000 people a year are arrested in New Jersey for marijuana 
possession. She said civil fines, rather than criminal penalties, 
would be more appropriate - and save taxpayer money.

"Every time someone's currently arrested for what is the equivalent 
of a few sugar packets of marijuana, you have a police officer who 
has to be taken off the street to bring the person in to process 
them," Scotti said. "It takes up the time of court. The person has to 
either hire a defense attorney or have an attorney paid for by the 
state of New Jersey, a public defender to defend them."

Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, D-Mercer, said: "The real crime is to 
taxpayers. It's really costly for taxpayers to prosecute that one 
joint when limited resources would be better served on bigger and 
better crimes." Contrary stance

A plan to eliminate criminal penalties for possession of less than a 
half-ounce of marijuana appears likely to be approved next month by 
the Assembly. The legislative body was prepared to endorse the change 
last week, but instead altered the plan to steer some of the money 
from the new fines into drug-related education programs that try to 
ward off abuse of prescription and illegal drugs.

Not everyone supports the change. Bruce Hummer of the New Jersey 
Prevention Network, a public health agency based in Lakewood 
representing professionals that seek to prevent substance abuse, said 
the idea encourages marijuana use by signaling the government says 
it's not harmful.

"Research and evidence has shown this increasingly lenient view of 
marijuana will be devastating to our youth," said Hummer, who noted 
15 grams of marijuana, which would be the amount subject to fines 
rather than criminal prosecution, isn't a small amount.

The state Senate's version of the plan would apply to even larger 
amounts of marijuana than the Assembly envisions. It's unclear 
whether either plan would be approved by Gov. Chris Christie, who 
last week said he is inclined not to support the concept.

Still, the bill was approved unanimously by an Assembly committee, 
has support from both ends of the political spectrum and could garner 
enough backing to override a potential veto:

* "The time has come to really decriminalize small amounts of 
marijuana," said Assemblyman Peter Barnes III, D-Middlesex. "I come 
from a law enforcement family. My father was in the FBI for 28 years. 
My brother's a prosecutor. Some people have questioned why I decided 
to be a sponsor of the bill. I think the reason is the criminal bills 
for small amounts of marijuana don't make sense."

* "This is just a more realistic view, less punitive measure for an 
offender, and it goes along with the governor's call that there 
should be treatment over incarceration," Gusciora said. "The bottom 
line is the police have better things to do than a crime really 
committed against oneself, rather than society."

* "Some acts harm society, and they warrant the intervention of 
police, prosecutors and perhaps even incarceration," said Assemblyman 
Michael Patrick Carroll, R-Morris. "Other acts warrant at best a 
spanking, and this seems to be one of those situations, where the 
harm to society, if it exists at all, is de minimus."

Carroll is perhaps the Legislature's most conservative member, 
Gusciora its most liberal, and their alliance on the issue has been a 
topic of humor in the capital. Carroll has been happy to engage in it 
- - "perhaps there is hope for him yet," he said of Gusciora - but says 
a serious talk about the larger issue of drug policy ought to be on 
the horizon.

"At some point or another, society, writ broadly, is going to have a 
have a calm, sober, logical, dispassionate discussion on the costs 
and benefits of a prohibitionary regime," Carroll said. "The costs to 
me are obvious in terms of the involvement of government, the expense 
and as we see down in Mexico, the consequence of illegalizing drugs 
is almost open warfare. Obviously no one tries to smuggle aspirin 
across the international border because it's not illegal."



As of January, 22 percent of all New Jersey prisoners were locked up 
for drug violations - more than 5,200 of the 23,810 inmates.

Nearly 1 of every 5 locked-up drug offenders were there for drug 
possession, with the other 80 percent there for sale or distribution.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom