After years of waging an unsuccessful war on drugs, the national government and the Connecticut State Legislature are taking a new look at the drug policies in this country.
There appears to be a growing perception that the use of some illegal drugs should be treated as a public health problem rather than a criminal problem. Although many proposals under consideration are controversial, there can be little doubt that our current war on drugs is not working. The old adage that warns when you find yourself digging a hole, the first step should be to stop digging, seems to apply here.
On the national level, Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske has been appointed as the country’s drug czar. Seattle’s approach to the use of drugs has been an interesting one. In 2003 voters decided that marijuana prosecution should be the lowest law enforcement priority. The city has promoted anti-addiction treatment to reduce the demand for drugs. Kerlikowske is expected to differ from previous drug czars in emphasizing the public health aspects of drug use rather than seeing how many people can be incarcerated for drug offenses.
n Connecticut, several bills have been introduced that deal with marijuana use. Senate Bill 349 would make it an infraction to possess or have under one’s control less than one ounce of marijuana. Having one ounce or more, but less than four ounces would subject a person to a fine of not more than $1,000 or one year in prison for a first offense. The bill passed in the Judiciary Committee 24-14, with six absent or not voting.
Another bill, House Bill 5175, would have legalized the medical use of marijuana. In light of the federal government’s recent policy of not prosecuting users of medical marijuana in states where it is legal, more serious consideration can be given to medical marijuana use. This bill died in committee, but a similar bill is likely to be introduced in the next session.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder recently announced that the federal government now will defer to state governments on the issue of medical marijuana. The impact was immediate, according to Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, D.C.
“On the day of Holder’s announcement, New Mexico announced that it had issued the first license that any state government has ever issued to a medical marijuana producer in the state,” Kampia said. “That first nonprofit provider will be able to grow and sell marijuana to card-carrying patients without being harassed or raided by local, state, or federal law enforcement officials.”
Other states are also taking serious looks at their drug laws. States that have decriminalized marijuana use include Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Michigan, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, and Wyoming. For more information, go to www.ccsu.edu/imrp/dp21/research/Marijuana%20Decriminalization.pdf.
The current economic climate has caused many people to take a second look at their support for prosecuting as many drug users as possible. Treating non-violent drug users as having medical problems rather than criminals can be very cost effective. Our jails are overcrowded, our police departments are burdened, our court systems are strained, and state and national budgets are in dire need of trimming.
Advocates for relaxing our laws regarding non-violent drug users cite statistics that claim drug use actually goes down in countries where use is legal. The explanation? Some of the panache of smoking pot is gone when one’s grandmother is smoking it for her glaucoma!
The League of Women Voters is looking forward to a talk to be given on May 18 by Dr. Susan Pease, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Central Connecticut State University. She will put our current war on drugs in historical perspective and help us understand the issues involving drug use. She will be speaking at the annual meeting and luncheon of the League of Women Voters of Southeastern Connecticut at the Norwich Inn, 607 West Thames St, Norwich. The meeting is open to the public. Dr. Pease will speak at about 1 p.m.
Claire Sauer, a former state representative, is a board member of the League of Women Voters of Southeastern Connecticut. The league is a nonpartisan organization of women and men dedicated to the principles of self-government established by the U.S. Constitution. The group encourages active participation in government and works to increase understanding of major policy issues and to influence public policy through education and advocacy. Membership is open to all.
By Claire Sauer