GUEST OPINION: Civilized Smokers

By on February 18, 2014

There is little doubt that Prohibition in the 1920s failed to achieve what it set out to do, and that the unintended consequences far outweighed its few benefits. Likewise, the prohibition of marijuana (and the greater war on drugs) is nothing short of a failure. The criminalization of marijuana represents the same failed policies of Prohibition, and is not a prudent use of our law enforcement or criminal justice resources. Despite spending billions of dollars relentlessly enforcing marijuana laws over the past four decades, use and availability of marijuana remain about the same. That’s not a sustainable way to run an economy, nor a desirable way to run a democracy.

No other country in the world incarcerates as many people as the United States. There are almost 2.3 million people in America’s prison system today. The single greatest cause of the prison population growth has been the war on drugs, with the number of people incarcerated for non-violent drug offenses increasing more than twelvefold since 1980. Nearly half of all drug arrests each year are for marijuana-related offenses, the overwhelming majority of which are for personal possession. This is simply unsustainable.

It’s time we rethink our laws and enact practical reforms related to marijuana.
Our laws should be grounded in common sense. Wyoming spent approximately $9,148,026 enforcing marijuana laws in 2010. Of the 2,254 total arrests for marijuana in Wyoming that year, 93 percent of those arrests were for simple possession of the substance; not for the manufacture or sale of marijuana. Nationally, there were 889,133 marijuana arrests in 2010 alone – that’s 300,000 more arrests than for all violent crimes combined – or the equivalent of one marijuana arrest every 37 seconds. What’s more, in 2010 states spent combined over $3.6 billion enforcing marijuana laws. What would you rather spend our tax dollars on?

It is unconscionable for our state to spend millions to arrest and prosecute ordinary people, as well as crowd the courts and our jails, for simple possession of marijuana. Wyoming should use its public resources wisely. Enforcing marijuana laws diverts law enforcement resources away from solving serious crimes. Not only are these laws wasteful; they are tremendously unfair. Marijuana possession arrests have serious human costs and consequences. They result in permanent criminal records that can be found on the Internet by employers, landlords, family members, schools, credit agencies, licensing boards, and banks.

Once ensnared in the criminal justice system, people may lose their student loan eligibility, housing assistance, veterans’ benefits, child custody determinations, immigration status, or the ability to join the military. The long-term punitive effect of a criminal record does great harm to people who would otherwise not be considered criminals.

Presidents Obama, Clinton and George W. Bush have all admitted to trying marijuana. Why, then, do we continue to enforce our marijuana criminal laws with serious consequences, despite the fact that the last three presidents have all smoked marijuana?

Moreover, it costs $135 per day to incarcerate an inmate in our prison system in Wyoming. We need the criminal justice system to protect us from serious and violent crimes, not lock up people convicted of non-violent marijuana offenses. In 2012, while speaking at a legislative budget hearing, Wyoming Department of Corrections Director Robert Lampert stated, “We should save our prison beds for people we’re afraid of and not those we’re mad at.” I sincerely agree.

Today we are criminalizing private use of a widely-used substance that, according to a 2013 Gallup poll, 58 percent of Americans say should be legalized. In the same poll, a sizable percentage of Americans (38 percent) admitted to having tried marijuana. The revenue we spend enforcing these laws should be reinvested in our communities to enhance public health and safety.

Nearly half of the U.S. states, including our neighbors Colorado, Montana, and Nebraska, have enacted some type of marijuana law reform. It’s time we acknowledge the failure of our current drug policies and figure out what’s the right path to reform for Wyoming. As a start, we should consider Representative James Byrd’s HB0049, currently pending in the upcoming legislative session, which would make possession of small amounts of marijuana a civil penalty with a small fine. Other types of reforms, such as medical marijuana, are gaining attention here in Wyoming, too. It’s time for Wyoming to rethink our marijuana laws and enact sensible reforms. The sooner we do, the more we save and the fewer we harm.  

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