Recently, the Philadelphia District Attorney announced that he would all but decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Seth Williams, the city’s first African-American chief prosecutor, has joined forces with members of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court for a new drug policy that could eliminate 3,000 drug cases from the court dockets each year. Under the policy, people who are in possession of up to 30 grams of weed may have to pay a fine, but will not have a criminal record.
For a city such as Philadelphia, money is tight. Cash flow problems are running hand-in-hand with a violent crime epidemic. Police, judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys labor in a system that is clogged, overwhelmed and broken. The loosening of penalties on marijuana will free up resources that can and should be devoted to fighting real crimes, violent crimes such as murder and rape. Philly is just the latest example of efforts around the country to take drug policy in a completely new direction. The war on drugs has not ended, but it appears to be slowing down a bit.
The Senate has given green light to narrowing the disparities in sentencing for powder vs. crack cocaine. Currently, it takes 5 kilograms (5000 grams) of powder cocaine to get you a mandatory minimum of 10 years in federal prison, but only 50 grams of crack will give you the same punishment. This 100-to-1 ratio for powder vs. crack would drop to an 18-to-1 ratio, meaning that 280 grams of crack rather than 50 grams would trigger the 10-year minimum jail time. This is a considerable improvement over the status quo, although it could be better. Some judges are even sentencing crack and powder cocaine defendants at a one-to-one ratio.
And the Obama administration will not arrest medical marijuana users who are following state laws.
There was a time when the war on drugs seemed like a good idea to many. Faced with an epidemic of drug use and the violent crime associated with it, society concluded that it had to address the crisis. Politicians were quick to portray themselves as “tough on crime” in order to attract voters on election day. So, draconian drug laws have placed more and more people behind bars for longer and longer periods of time. Catchy slogans such as “three-strikes” made good public relations but terrible law. As a result, 2.4 million people are behind bars in America, about 70 percent black and brown.
And the world’s largest prison population was built from the war on drugs. Drugs have fueled the growth of prisons. Around 20 percent of state prisoners and over half of federal prisoners are drug offenders, and around half of all inmates are incarcerated for nonviolent drug and property crimes.
Meanwhile, the criminalization of drugs is responsible for the bloody drug cartel turf war in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, which has left 5,000 people dead in two years. Prohibition was an abysmal failure for alcohol, and it certainly has not worked for drugs, so why not decriminalize, tax and regulate certain illegal substances?
A study by a Harvard economist concludes that marijuana legalization would save $13.7 billion per year in government spending on drug enforcement—$10.4 billion to the states, and the rest to the federal government. And a tax on marijuana could generate $6.4 billion in revenue if the drug is taxed at a rate similar to alcohol and tobacco, and that’s a conservative estimate.
According to a recent poll, a majority of Americans under 30 favor legalizing marijuana, and a majority of Americans of all ages favor legalizing medical marijuana. The drug is illegal under federal law, and used for medicinal purposes in 16 states, including California. The Golden State could become the first state to legalize recreational marijuana use for adults when Californians vote on an initiative in November. Taxing the drug could yield the state $1.4 billion annually.
Similarly, drug decriminalization initiatives are being introduced throughout the nation. For example:
· The judiciary committee in the Connecticut legislature voted to decriminalize marijuana for adults 18 and over who possess less than a half of an ounce.
· A ballot measure in Oregon would decriminalize marijuana and allow people to grow the crop with permits.
· Colorado voters passed an amendment that made their state the only state in the Union to recognize a constitutional right of qualifying patients to use medical marijuana.
· In January, the New Jersey legislature voted to allow medical marijuana dispensaries for chronic diseases such as AIDS and cancer. Last year, 60 percent of Maine voters approved of similar dispensaries, and in April, the state legislature authorized up to eight medical marijuana dispensaries.
· Massachusetts voted for a ballot initiative to decriminalize pot in 2008.
· In Nevada, a ballot initiative to tax and regulate weed could make its way on the ballot in 2012. And while Arizona is an inhospitable place where Latino immigrants are concerned, voters of that state will decide whether to legalize medical marijuana in November.
Now, while this is progress, the war on drugs is far from over. But perhaps Americans are beginning to open their eyes. Criminalization has given us failed policies, full prisons, empty coffers, and little else to show for it. Now is the time to make a change with the nation’s drug laws.