Marijuana decriminalization only a first step

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purple-weedMany believe only full legalization and an end to drug prohibition will address the current drug crisis in America.

Before the ink was dry on the legislation decriminalizing marijuana possession in Rhode Island, a bill was already being introduced by Representative Edith Ajello, Chairwoman of the House Judiciary Committee. H5274, the Marijuana Regulation, Control & Taxation Act, seeks to do just that.
She has nearly twenty co-signors, including Republican House Minority leader Rep. Brian Newberry, and Rep. Jay Edwards, who represents district 70, Tiverton and Portsmouth. “Decriminalization is a great first step. Rhode Island is progressing in the right direction with this one. The war on drugs has been a miserable failure.”
Rep. Edwards became concerned about this issue when two of his employees were prevented from working on a federal contract that he was bidding as a project manager for a construction company, based on a background that included arrests for possessions of small amounts of marijuana. “People are punished well beyond the statute of limitations. These men, in their mid-to-late forties, were having their livelihoods threatened because of a 30-year-old youthful indiscretion.  My wife is a second grade teacher in Massachusetts, and she’s had parents who could not get clearance to volunteer in their own children’s classrooms because they were caught with marijuana 20 years earlier,” he said.
According to a Pew report released last week, Rep. Edwards is now in the majority (52%) of Americans who believe that marijuana should be legalized. For others, legalizing marijuana alone will still fail to address the heart of the problem. At the center of that battle is a group called Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, or LEAP, a group founded by five former law enforcement officers who looked back with regret the number of lives they unintentionally helped destroy as agents of the “War on Drugs.” By necessity, the former prosecutors, judges, and police officers who make up LEAP are all retired. “You must be retired, if you work in law enforcement you can’t engage in this kind of advocacy otherwise,” says Beth Comery, Rhode Island’s LEAP spokesperson, who served as a Providence Police Officer from 1976-1982.
Working patrol in Provicence in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, Ms. Comery spent her days and nights responding to calls dealing with violent crimes, robberies and assaults. “Frankly, a marijuana arrest was a very low priority. Unofficially, you felt it was a waste of time. You didn’t say that out loud, but there you had so many other, more urgent things to do.” Even targeting dealers can be an exercise in frustration. “Drug dealers are not like other criminals. When you arrest a murderer, nobody is going to take over where he left off. With drug dealers there’s no end.”
“Not once did I get called because a stoner was causing a disturbance.
It was and is a social justice issue. We were in those neighborhoods, and the vice squad was working in those neighborhoods, not out of some deliberate attempt to target low income areas, but just because those were the neighborhoods that most of us were familiar with. We never worked on the East Side, and obviously there are plenty of drugs there. This ‘War on Drugs’ has destroyed respect and trust of law enforcement in the communities that need it the most.”
Indeed, LEAP’s broad focus seeks to legalize all drugs, not just the more “mainstream” marijuana. “The prisons are full of non-violent offenders. Incarceration has become a big business—it is even a for-profit business in some states, and the industry is actually lobbying to keep drugs illegal, so as not to harm their bottom line. But, says Ms. Comery, “non-violent drug offenders are people, drugs are a public health issue, and it’s not a problem that’s amenable to law enforcement solutions.” Every one of those incarcerated drug users represents a broken family, or a child who is missing a parent, a loss of income, and a cost of roughly $44,000 annually for their incarceration.
LEAP does advocate total legalization of all drugs, a line that Rep. Edwards is not ready to cross. Ms. Comery admits that it sounds weird to suggest legalizing something like heroin but argues that it’s the only way you are going to take away the profit motive, weaken the gangs and cartels. “We need to tax it, regulate it, and channel that money to treatment. Only then can we destroy the illegal market. Drugs are bad, the war on drugs is worse,” she says.
Opponets argue that legalization would encourage abuse, but studies have shown the opposite is true, although with only Washington and Colorado enjoying full legalization, it’s an admittedly small sample size. Still, it’s pretty clear that, given a body count of 50,000 along the Mexican border, 24 task forces investigating our own border control officers, and anecdotal stories of bales of marijuana being shot over the border with out-sized “t-shirt cannons,” this is a war that is not working.
It is not a right-wing issue or a left-wing issue—advocates of ending prohibition include everyone from progressive liberals to libertarians to small government republicans.  None other than Conservative icon William F. Buckley, Jr. advocated for an end to prohibition as early as 35 years ago and continued to, until his death. Regardless of the outcome, the legislative battle for full marijuana legalization will wage on.
“Decriminalization took four years,” says Rep. Edwards. “We’re in it for the long haul.”

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