Pubdate: Mon, 23 Mar 2015
Source: Gazette, The (Colorado Springs, CO)
Copyright: 2015 The Gazette
Authors: Pula Davis, Wayne Laugesen, Christine Tatum
Series: Special report, 'Clearing the Haze:'


Of all the misunderstandings about marijuana's impact on the country, 
perhaps none is greater than the belief that America's courts, 
prisons and jails are clogged with people whose only offense was 
marijuana use. This is the perception, but statistics show few 
inmates are behind bars strictly for marijuana-related offenses, and 
legalization of the drug will do little to affect America's growing 
incarceration numbers.

"It's this myth that won't go away and gets repeated by people who 
should know better. Unfortunately, no one reads public records," said 
Ernie Martinez, Denver-based at-large director for the National 
Narcotics Officers Association Coalition. "But the truth is there - 
and it looks a lot different than the story pushed by 
marijuana-legalization advocates and amplified in news media."

Leaders of the country's biggest groups pushing for and against 
marijuana legalization surprisingly stand on a lot of common ground.

Both camps say they do not want people jailed only for drug use 
and/or possession of small amounts consistent with personal use. They 
also agree with what public records show: Nationwide, racial and 
ethnic minorities are arrested and convicted at higher rates than 
whites across many criminal categories, including drug possession and use.

Both camps also favor law enforcement strategies that streamline 
low-level drug offenders into drug courts and treatment programs. 
They push for reforms of the criminal justice system that would give 
judges more flexibility in sentencing in specific, lower-level, 
nonviolent cases.

Similarly, advocates on both sides of the legalization debate say 
they want to see legal reforms that could help remove the stigmas 
that may prevent low-level drug offenders with personal-use 
convictions from having housing, jobs and scholarships that help them 
lead productive and healthy lives.

Where the factions sharply disagree is on the question of whether 
marijuana legalization is needed to accomplish any of those goals.

"Marijuana legalization isn't required to reform problematic laws, 
and it's not the answer to our prison problems, and it certainly 
won't end racism where it exists in the legal system," said Kevin 
Sabet, a former senior White House drug policy adviser who co-founded 
Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a nonprofit organization advocating 
for reform of marijuana laws without legalizing the addictive drug.

"Legalization is really about creating a heavily commercialized Big 
Tobacco 2.0 that lets people make a lot of money from the sale of 
another addictive drug that we have every reason to believe will 
disproportionately harm poor people who don't have the resources to 
overcome the problems of substance abuse and addiction," Sabet said. 
"We've already seen this with alcohol and tobacco."

Data needed to track impact

Martinez, the law enforcement officer who has been appointed to serve 
on local and state committees tasked with examining and implementing 
marijuana laws, said law enforcement agencies throughout the state 
are only now beginning to gather the marijuana-centric data they need 
to track the drug's impact on their resources.

In the meantime, his more than three decades of professional 
experience - and those public records he would like more people to 
review - tell him very few people are arrested and/or imprisoned only 
for marijuana possession and/or use.

"Our courts and prisons are actually filled with people who committed 
serious crimes while under a drug's influence or while they were in 
possession of very large amounts of a drug with the intent to sell it 
in circumstances associated with violence and/or firearms," he said. 
"If anything, we need to conduct more research on how marijuana use 
contributes to criminal behavior."

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2004 - eight years 
before Colorado voters cited the reduction of prison populations as a 
chief reason for their 2012 vote to legalize recreational marijuana:

One-tenth of 1 percent of people in state prisons were serving 
sentences for first-time marijuana possession. Those people also may 
have concurrent sentencing for other offenses.

Three-tenths of 1 percent of people in state prisons were serving 
time for marijuana possession with prior criminal offenses. They, 
too, may have concurrent sentencing for other offenses.

1.4 percent of people in state corrections were imprisoned for 
offenses involving only marijuana-related crimes.

Those national numbers are consistent with a report released by the 
Colorado Drug Investigators Association. In 2010, only 1 percent of 
court commitments to prison in Colorado involved marijuana charges. 
There were more court commitments to prison for traffic-related 
offenses (185) than for all marijuana offenses (91) that year, the 
association reported, citing a review of Colorado Department of 
Corrections records.

Casual users not targeted

In 2011, the U.S. Sentencing Commission issued reports also 
suggesting that low-level drug users are not the targets of law 
enforcement nationwide:

That year, there were 216,362 inmates in the federal system. Among 
them were 6,961 marijuana offenders, only 103 of whom were imprisoned 
for simple possession - the result of plea bargains in which 
prisoners pleaded down to possession in exchange for lesser sentences.

The federal government convicted only 48 marijuana offenders who 
possessed less than 5,000 grams of marijuana. The average amount 
possessed was 3,800 grams - the equivalent of about 9,000 joints, or 
marijuana cigarettes.

Though people generally are not jailed for marijuana use, the 
nation's criminal justice system is flooded with possession charges. 
In 2011, the FBI reported that law enforcement agencies across the 
country made about 800,000 "arrests" for marijuana possession - but 
there are two major caveats Martinez and Sabet say often are not reported:

Though a charge might be recorded as an "arrest," most localities 
across the U.S. treat marijuana possession much like a parking or 
speeding ticket. Many users are not actually arrested or taken to 
jail. But a possession conviction can harm someone unnecessarily for 
years, Sabet said.

"That is why we should advocate for laws that do not discriminate 
against those with records for small-time marijuana possession only - 
for instance, for getting college loans, public housing or other 
benefits," he said. "We don't have good data on the number of people 
affected by a criminal record tarnished only with marijuana 
possession arrests, but the number is not trivial."

Possession charges are typically levied in conjunction with charges 
for more serious crimes, usually trafficking, and often the result of 
plea bargaining down from more serious charges.

"In other words, many times, the system has done a lot of these 
people a favor by letting them plea only to possession," Martinez said.

In 2008, Martinez coordinated a committee appointed by then-Denver 
Mayor John Hickenlooper to examine all marijuana-possession summonses 
the Denver Police Department issued that year. The review of 1,368 
summonses, conducted by researchers at the University of Colorado 
Denver's School of Public Affairs, found:

The typical offender was a white male, representing 46.3 percent of 
the total sample. African American males followed at 33.9 percent, 
Hispanic males at 18.3 percent and Asian males at 1.5 percent.

The most common reason for contact between an alleged offender and a 
police officer was a traffic stop, cited in 32 percent of cases. 
Suspicion of other criminal activity was the second most common 
reason police cited for stopping someone, recorded in 22 percent of cases.

In cases where locations were noted on a summons, marijuana 
possession citations were issued in a public setting 83.6 percent of 
the time, compared with 14 percent issued at a private home - 
typically residences where officers had been summoned for help.

Use high among offenders

Sabet and Martinez say they also stand against legalization because 
it would increase use of an addictive drug prevalent among people 
caught up in the criminal justice system.

"Correlation is not causation, but I do not think we've looked 
thoroughly enough at this association between criminal behavior and 
marijuana use - which has increased since marijuana legalization in 
Colorado," Martinez said.

Indeed, marijuana is the "drug most commonly admitted when ... 
arrestees were asked about use in the prior 30 days," according to 
the federal Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring Program's 2013 annual 
report, the most recent data available. Consider:

In Denver, 53 percent of adult, male arrestees admitted marijuana use 
in the 30 days before their arrest.

Of male arrestees tracked by the program, those in Denver reported 
the least difficulty buying marijuana, with 17 percent reporting a 
"failed buy" in the previous 30 days.

Arrestees tracked in Atlanta and Chicago, where recreational 
marijuana use is illegal, reported more difficulty obtaining the 
drug, with 24 percent and 40 percent "failed buys," respectively.

The findings are consistent with a Colorado Department of Corrections 
report released in 2011 - before the legalization of recreational 
marijuana - that found 80 percent of court commitments to Colorado 
prisons had a moderate to severe substance abuse problem.


Proponents of Amendment 64 said legalizing recreational sales and use 
of marijuana would stifle the black market in Colorado. That is not 
the case; crime statistics indicate we have more to learn about the 
long-term effects of legal pot on public safety and other concerns.

Data indicate there is new black market trafficking across the 
country as a result of legalized pot sales in Colorado. Other safety 
concerns surrounding concentrates and their manufacture are 
consequences of legalization that were never anticipated.

About the series

The reporting team: editorial board members Pula Davis and Wayne 
Laugesen and local reporter Christine Tatum.

After the first year of recreational pot sales, The Gazette takes a 
comprehensive look at the unintended consequences of legalizing sales 
and use of recreational marijuana.

Day 1: Colorado has a fragile scheme for regulating legal marijuana 
and implementing a state drug prevention strategy.

Day 2: One of the suppositions about legalizing pot was that 
underground sales would be curtailed, but officials say there is 
evidence of a thriving black market.

Day 3: One teen's struggle to overcome his marijuana addiction shows 
how devastating the drug can be for younger, more vulnerable users. 
And employers face new workplace issues.

Day 4: Amid the hoopla about recreational marijuana sales, the 
medical marijuana industry is flourishing and has its own set of 
complicated concerns.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom