Projo Editorial Board: Decriminalize pot

February 9, 2010 - 11:01am

Tues Feb. 9, 2010

Projo Editorial Board:

Marijuana is not a particularly healthy thing to put into the body, and some research suggests it’s especially bad for the developing neurology of teens. But is arresting and jailing people for possessing small amounts of it the answer?

That’s a fair question. In our opinion, the answer is no.

It’s time to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of pot in Rhode Island. Education is a more humane way than incarceration and a criminal record to help people and maintain order.

One thing seems clear: Our current approach has been an expensive flop.

As retired detective Jack Cole told a state Senate panel last week: “For 40 years, with a budget of over a trillion dollars, the United States has fought the war on drugs with ever harsher policies. We have made more than 39 million arrests for nonviolent drug offenses. Nearly half of those arrests were for marijuana violations.”

What do we have to show for it? “Today, drugs are cheaper, more potent, and far easier for our children to access than they were in the 1970s,” Mr. Cole said.

The pursuit of nonviolent marijuana users puts enormous strain on the justice system, feeds corruption and wastes taxpayer dollars that could be used more effectively elsewhere. With the average cost of incarcerating someone at the Adult Correctional Institutions running to $44,000 a year, it makes sense to use those expensive slots for violent offenders and others whose crimes seriously threaten society, rather than peaceful smalltime pot smokers. (Dealers are another thing, of course.)

In a free society, it seems unreasonably harsh to make possession of a small amount of marijuana a serious crime meriting jail time and a record that could harm someone’s lifelong job prospects. Some would argue that alcohol is a more dangerous and destructive drug, harming society far more profoundly. (Prohibition of that was tried, and failed dismally.)

A bill before the General Assembly would make possession of less than an ounce of marijuana — enough for about 20 cigarettes — a civil offense, subject to a $150 fine. That is certainly more reasonable than the current criminal penalty of up to one year in jail and a $500 fine.

This reform would free up tax dollars — and, far more important, free our law-enforcement officials to focus on far more destructive offenses.

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