NEWPORT, VT- Voters from the States of Colorado and Washington approved legalization of marijuana, taking an unprecedented step in asserting state's rights over federal laws against the cultivation, distribution and use of the plant. Each state approved the ballot measure with 55% of the voters agreeing to legalize marijuana.
In recent years, states have enacted medical marijuana laws, passed legislation to decriminalize marijuana, and now to flat out legalize the plant, remove the state government from regulating its use except among minors, and remove civil and criminal penalties.
The “war on drugs” is popularly known to have started in 1971 under the administration of President Richard Nixon in response to a report by Congressmen Robert Steel from Connecticut and Morgan Murphy of Illinois. The report focused on the growing heroin epidemic among U.S. servicemen in Vietnam. In 1973, the Drug Enforcement Agency was established to deal with illegal drug use, primarily focusing on cocaine and heroin. Even through the Carter administration, the use of marijuana was considered an afterthought as the rise of the Medellin Cartel in Columbia was trafficking cocaine into the United States.
During the 1980s, the Reagan administration enacted the Sentencing Reform Act, in part as a response to the crack cocaine overdose of the Boston Celtic's draft choice Len Bias a day after the 1983 draft. The stiffer sentences for using illicit drugs led to a four-fold increase in incarceration of marijuana or hashish users.
The United States government alone spent $15 billion in 2010 on the war on drugs, and Vermont State Representative Jason Lorber said it cost the state $100 million in enforcement, prosecution, defense attorneys, court costs, incarceration, and other expenses a year.
Recreational use of marijuana makes it the third most popular drug in America, behind only alcohol and tobacco. More than 30% of the U.S. population lives under some form of marijuana decriminalization laws, according to government and academic studies. Decriminalization laws have not contributed to an increase in consumption, nor have they negatively impacted adolescent attitudes toward drug use, according to these studies.
During 2011, the number of people arrested for marijuana-related charges was more than the number arrested for all violent crimes, including murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault. Of those arrested for violation of marijuana laws, 86% were charged with possession; the balance with cultivation, sales and distribution.
A perception that marijuana is considered a gateway drug is in the eye of the beholder, as studies show that alcohol and tobacco use are far and away the first drug of choice among adolescents. However, marijuana is the top choice for adolescents over other illegal drugs including prescription drugs, cocaine, heroine, and crack cocaine.
Public perception about consumption of marijuana has changed over the years as evidenced by 18 states and the District of Columbia having medical marijuana programs. A federal Compassionate Use program was effectively shut down by President Reagan in the 1980s. In response, states began to debate the value of marijuana for a limited number of medical conditions. Sixteen states have enacted some form of decriminalization laws regarding marijuana use.
A 2010, an ABC News/Washington Post poll showed the change in attitude toward marijuana use as 81% of Americans favored the use of medical marijuana up from 69% in 1997. Decriminalization of marijuana found 46% in favor compared to 22% in favor in 1997.
Sixteen states including the New England States of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut have rescinded criminal penalties for adults who possess small quantities of the drug. During the next legislative session, the State of Maine is expected to pass legislation to impose alcohol style regulations and taxes on marijuana sales and use. The State of New Hampshire's legislature passed bills in the last legislative session to legalize the medical use of marijuana but the measure was opposed by retiring Governor John Lynch. Incoming Governor Maggie Hassan has stated she will support a medical marijuana initiative.
Vermont State Senator Joe Benning of Caledonia/Orange Counties, a defense attorney by trade, will lead the effort to pass legislation to decriminalize marijuana laws in the Vermont Legislature, so violators will pay fines but not be subject to incarceration. A fiscally conservative Republican, Benning approaches the subject by considering how current laws impact our use of tax revenues and not because of a socially liberal cause.
“I'm not doing this to encourage people to smoke,” he states. “We're spending money to change a culture, and as a criminal defense attorney I see the reaction to how the laws are administered.”
“I have an interest in stopping what we are doing and revisiting the process.” Senator Benning said. “We need to take it out of the criminal justice system and get people out of jail who are incarcerated for a victimless crime.”
Senator Benning ticked off the financial costs of a marijuana arrest: first the law enforcement officer has to draft an affidavit and send it to the county prosecutor; the prosecutor has to send paperwork to the court; then there's the cost of a defense attorney; then court costs for hearings, motions, and potentially a trial; finally, based on the outcome of the case, there are costs associated with incarceration, probation and parole.
“Under the current laws young kids who are convicted of a minor marijuana charge can’t get financial aid for college; a person can be jailed for a probation violation for marijuana possession or use,” said Senator Benning. “Nothing has changed in 70 years (the first marijuana law was enacted in 1914), people are smoking it. We've spent years trying to change the culture and nothing has changed.”
Senator Benning's support of decriminalization is not in conflict with federal law as states are allowed to establish laws and penalties regulating marijuana use. Legalizing the use of marijuana in Colorado and Washington are in conflict with federal law.
Passage of a decriminalization bill in the Senate is expected to happen next session, Senator Benning believes, and has the support of a majority of his colleagues. The Senate did pass an amendment to that effect last year, which was not approved by the House of Representatives.
Rep. Jason Lorber said his focus is on the criminal justice system. “There is no correlation between prison sentences and crime; it seems counter intuitive, but it's true. Do we want to continue the war on drugs that takes a tremendous amount of financial cost (to maintain), affects productivity, and has such an effect on families?”
“The bill we will introduce is a moderate approach in that there will be penalties for possession of under two ounces, drug treatment for users, especially adolescents, and a continued focus on drug education and awareness,” Lorber. “All the bill does is removes incarceration for possession of minor amounts of marijuana; you still can be fined and be required to participate in drug counseling.”
Rep. Lorber said he follows a simple principal, “Prisons should be reserved for people whom we are scared of, not people whom we are mad at.”
In the past legislative session, House Speaker Shap Smith would not allow the subject to be brought to the floor of the House for debate. However, this fall the Speaker said he will allow it to move forward.
Rep. Lorber said there is overwhelming support to pass a decriminalization bill this next legislative session. Governor Peter Shumlin has gone on record that he will sign a decriminalization bill if it passes both chambers. “We can save $100 million and make the state and it's citizens safe for society,” said Rep. Lorber. We want to be smart about using our taxpayers dollars.”