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Legalize marijuana to realign criminal justice priorities (By Beth Comery)

March 29, 2011

When I joined the Providence Police Department I was assigned to the Patrol Division, where I soon discovered that most of the patrol officers - rookies and veterans alike - had little enthusiasm for getting bogged down with marijuana arrests. We all wanted to remain on the streets for the more serious, and frankly more interesting, calls.
While officers exercise discretion in order to best serve the public, situations will arise where police have no choice but to charge a person found possessing marijuana and spend time processing the case instead of patrolling the streets. It was a waste of time when I was on patrol and it still is. It is time to change the marijuana laws.
The fact is, the current marijuana laws don't enhance public safety; they threaten it. F.B.I. statistics indicate that nationally, nearly four of out of 10 murders, six of out of 10 rapes and nine out of 10 burglaries go unsolved. The criminal justice system should be focusing its limited resources in these areas, rather than on the approximately 800,000 people that police arrest every year for marijuana offenses.
Federal research shows that more than 40 percent of adult Americans have tried marijuana at least once. When over 100 million Americans now feel somewhat comfortable breaking the law, perhaps it is time to change that law.
Clearly, making marijuana illegal hasn't prevented anyone from using it. It has, however, resulted in millions of arrests, distracting law enforcement from focusing on solving violent crime. And it's not just the police who are distracted. Needless arrests clog the court system and put people in our prisons who don't belong there.
Last year, the Rhode Island Senate created a special commission to study the state's marijuana laws. It found that 2,546 arrests were made in 2009 for first-time marijuana possession. The same year, the Department of Corrections incarcerated 337 people awaiting trial for possession of marijuana and 154 people were sentenced for possession of marijuana.
At the very least, decriminalizing possession, as the commission recommended, would end these pointless and damaging arrests as well as the ensuing costly incarcerations. And the fines would generate some revenue. But perhaps this is that critical juncture --- that point in time where political will and public support dovetail with financial necessity --- when our cash-strapped state can consider the bolder step of legalizing and regulating marijuana, and taxing it like alcohol.
Further, legalizing and regulating marijuana sales would have the added benefit of dealing a huge financial blow to the gangs and cartels that control the currently illegal marijuana market. Consider that more than 34,000 people have been killed in Mexico's prohibition-caused drug wars over the past four years alone.
The Justice Department warns that Mexican drug cartels are already operating north of their border, having set up shop running drug distribution networks in at least 230 American cities. U.S. officials have reported that the cartels make as much as 70 percent of their revenues from illegal marijuana sales alone.
It doesn't have to be this way. We can flip the economic equation. By decriminalizing marijuana possession and taxing its sales, we'll not only take a giant revenue source away from criminals, but Harvard University economist Jeffrey Miron estimates that Rhode Island alone could create more than $48 million in savings and new revenue each year.
In these trying fiscal times, there's growing momentum for marijuana law reform in the General Assembly, where medical marijuana won approval in 2006, and the compassion centers got the nod in 2009. And now, following the recommendations of the above-mentioned Senate Commission, legislators like Sen. Josh Miller and Reps Edith Ajello and John Edwards appear ready to further modernize the state's marijuana laws.
Rep. Edwards's decriminalization bill has 40 co-sponsors. And, far from being the third-rail issue it once was, marijuana policy reform is strongly supported by the public.
A Mason-Dixon Polling & Research survey says that 64 percent of Rhode Islanders support decriminalizing marijuana possession. Nationally, Gallup reports that support for full marijuana legalization is growing rapidly, rising to 46 percent in a recent poll, up from just 25 percent in the mid-1990s.
More and more elected officials are getting the message that the public is tired of the decades-old war on marijuana. Governor Chafee suggested during a campaign debate that one way to save the state money would be to lessen penalties for "low-level marijuana use," citing the "huge cost to taxpayers" of incarceration. Even President Obama said recently that legalization is "an entirely legitimate topic for debate."
Rhode Island should seize this opportunity and end its draconian marijuana prohibition laws. Let's allow cops and criminal justice professionals to focus on protecting the public, all while helping to put our fiscal house in order.
Beth Comery, a speaker for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, served as a Providence police officer for six years.

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