Duo Pushes Rhode Island to Decriminalize Pot

February 3, 2010 - 4:04pm

Originally published in the Wall Street Journal.

[LEAP] Reuters

Officer Chad Vanderklok executes a search warrant for marijuana at a Kalamazoo, Mich., home in November.

PROVIDENCE, R.I.—A retired police officer and the proprietor of an organic eatery make an odd couple when it comes to trying to overturn marijuana laws in this tiny state, but Jack Cole and Josh Miller are giving it their best shot.

Mr. Cole, 71 years old, is a veteran of decades with the New Jersey State Police, almost all with the drug squad. Mr. Miller, 55, runs Local 121, a restaurant favored among "buy local" diners, and also serves in the state Senate, where he leads a special commission to study marijuana prohibitions. The panel began hearings in January to discuss an overhaul of the state's pot laws, starting with decriminalization of small amounts.

As legislators across the U.S. struggle to rescue state budgets hammered by the recession, decriminalization is one idea gaining traction. Advocates say states could cut costs of policing, prosecuting and incarcerating offenders, and even raise money by taxing users.

"Any respect for this issue lies right now in its impact on the budget," said Mr. Miller.

His committee will hear testimony Wednesday from Mr. Cole, the founder of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, or LEAP, a national lobby seeking an end to the drug war. LEAP's 10,000 members include many former police officers, corrections workers and federal agents of the Border Patrol and Drug Enforcement Administration.

Decriminalization faces resistance from district attorneys and police departments that have grown used to making arrests and building criminal cases in a longstanding war-on-drugs tradition, and often equate decriminalization with being "soft" on crime.

The first steps state legislatures take tend to be narrow: legalizing marijuana use for cancer or glaucoma patients, or allowing municipalities to impose fines on casual smokers.

In California, one of 14 states that allow marijuana use for medical purposes, legislators are weighing a bill to legalize most marijuana sales and create tax and licensing fees for the industry. The measure was approved by the state Assembly's Public Safety Committee last month, but probably won't advance further this session.

New Hampshire is considering a pair of House bills, one to legalize and tax pot sales, and another to decriminalize possession. A medical-marijuana bill passed last year but was vetoed by the governor.

Decriminalization measures have also been introduced in Vermont, Virginia and Washington, while medical-marijuana bills are being considered in Maryland, Delaware and Wisconsin, among other states.

Mr. Miller said that in Rhode Island, which allows medical-marijuana use, decriminalization was the next step. He noted that last month a bill was introduced in the House to make possession of an ounce or less a civil offense punishable by a fine of $100, rather than a criminal offense.

Rhode Island has run budget deficits of just over $200 million in each of the past two years, and is looking at a $400 million deficit in the next fiscal year on a budget of $7 billion. Savings from decriminalization wouldn't be great, Mr. Miller conceded—say, $2 million to $3 million a year by freeing prison beds occupied by pot offenders. Rhode Island spends about $33,000 a year per inmate.

Not everyone agrees with that math. Matthew Dawson, deputy chief of the criminal division of the state attorney general's office, testified before Mr. Miller's panel last month that the state would achieve "zero savings" from decriminalization. He said police and prosecutors employed criminal charges for possession to plea bargain with suspects, and that suspects might otherwise have to be prosecuted for more serious crimes, at greater cost to the state. Others say possession charges help police cajole witnesses into cooperating in criminal inquiries.

Mr. Miller said such arguments may persuade some of his colleagues, but others would look to the decision two years ago in neighboring Massachusetts to decriminalize pot, which raised hopes among some legislators that a similar measure could pass in Rhode Island. "It's not far-off California, but the big state next door," Mr. Miller said.

Mr. Cole traveled to Providence recently to help Mr. Miller craft a strategy. He often wears a badge that reads: "Cops Say Legalize Drugs. Ask Me Why."

In his standard speech, he describes the epiphany he experienced early in his career as an undercover narcotics investigator. "I learned firsthand of the family-destroying consequences of sending drug users [often mothers and fathers] to jail. I can't think of a better policy for creating the next generation of drug addicts than to remove parents from children," he said. "I also realized that when police arrested a robber or rapist they made the community safer for everyone but when I arrested a drug pusher, I simply created a job opening for someone in a long line of people willing to take his place."

Messrs. Cole and Miller agreed the former cop's presentation must appeal to law-and-order politicians. Mr. Cole said the way to win them over was to show that chasing pot smokers keeps police from fighting other crimes.

"Look at the clearance rates for these crimes," he said. In the 1960s, before federal antidrug funds flowed heavily to states, "91% of all murders in this country were solved. Today, it's 61%." He cited similar drops for arson (60% unsolved) robbery (75% unsolved) and rape (60% unsolved).

Mr. Cole said the national addiction rate has remained unchanged for a century at about 1.3% of the population. He concludes that if drugs are legalized, the addiction rate would stay the same, "but we'll be spending a lot less to manage it."

Write to Joel Millman at joel.millman@wsj.com

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