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Decriminalize marijuana, cut prison costs


Last week, Gov. Bev Perdue announced a new research initiative, so we're here to help her. Perdue is faced with the budget from hell, and a prison population that's stretching the state's resources, and, through overcrowding, its sense of human decency. Perdue's new initiative, shared by the state, the federal Justice Department, the Council of State Governments, and the Pew Center on the States, is supposed to figure out how to cut costs while still keeping the public safe. Specifically, the initiative will study the reasons why many young people wind up in prison and recommend new programs to get at the root causes of crime and repeat offenders.

Perdue's initiative seems like a good idea, and we're hoping the groups involved will keep all options open and not shy away from controversy. I wonder, however, just how open to new policies they can really be. I ask this because there's one, surefire way to reduce the prison population, and thus taxpayer costs, without releasing dangerous, violent criminals back into our communities. It's called decriminalizing the possession and use of marijuana.

I'd like to know how many more studies we need proving that pot prohibition costs a fortune, seriously overburdens law enforcement all over the country, and is a major factor in our prisons' overcrowding before something is finally done? Governor, if you really want to reduce prison costs, work with the legislature to repeal anti-pot laws in North Carolina. Nationally, over 830,000 marijuana-related arrests are made every year; more than 70,000 Americans are currently in prison for possession or sale of pot. Think about that: 70,000 Americans, locked up for something that next to no one thinks is as dangerous as alcohol. Put plainly and simply, that's crazy.

Just as crazy is the fact that arrests for pot now outnumber arrests for all violent crimes combined. With prisons overcrowded and police departments and prosecutors barely able to keep up with property crimes and violence, isn't it maybe a little bit nuts to spend so much time and taxpayer money putting pot smokers in jail?

According to the website BlueNC, noted UNC-Chapel Hill economist Art Benavie, author of Drugs: America's Holy War, estimates that the U.S. is wasting more than $70 billion per year by prosecuting the disastrous "war on drugs."

No one knows precisely how much North Carolina spends each year prosecuting pot cases and housing those who are convicted. BlueNC, however, with the help of independent reporters in Wilmington, came up with a rough figure of $5 million per year spent on the "drug war" in Wilmington's New Hanover County alone. (Read here to see how they came up with that figure: The $5 million covers all drug-related prosecutions rather than just marijuana busts, but still, it gives an idea of the vast amounts of money being wasted on a policy that everyone knows is an utter failure.

A World Health Organization study established as a fact what anyone with open eyes realized some time ago: Tough "war on drugs" policies do not work, period. The figures on marijuana use were particularly startling. Countries with get-tough policies, notably the U.S. and New Zealand, led the rest of the nations surveyed with 42.4 percent and 41.9 percent of the population, respectively, saying they've used pot. By contrast, in Holland, where adults can possess small amounts of pot and buy it from regulated businesses, only 19.8 percent have used marijuana. In the U.S., 20.2 percent of young people said they started smoking pot by age 15; in Holland, it's only 7 percent.

Under Bush, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy responded to the WHO study by saying there's no connection between drug enforcement and our national levels of drug use. Now, stop and think about that statement for a minute: the White House said there is no connection between drug enforcement and the nation's level of drug use. That is what's called "giving away the game," i.e., it's a straightforward, albeit inadvertent, admission that get-tough policies do not work. The obvious question now is: Then why continue flushing $70 billion down the toilet every year?

The country has been gradually moving toward pot decriminalization for a couple of decades, particularly since some states began allowing the sale of marijuana for medical purposes. (Lawmakers in N.C. are currently fighting for it.) The Great Recession's demand for tightening of purse strings could prove to be the tipping point for legalizing pot. The latest polls from the Associated Press and CBS show that 60 percent of Americans favor the use of medical marijuana, and nearly half favor legalization for everyone. In November, Californians will vote in a referendum to determine whether it will decriminalize possession of small amounts of pot.

The U.S. tried alcohol prohibition for 13 years. It brought a huge rise in organized crime, filled the jails of that era, drove up the rate of drinking, and created younger and younger alcoholics. The country saw that Prohibition didn't work, wised up, and re-legalized alcohol. So, today we have full-to-bursting jails, largely due to the failed war on drugs. And Gov. Perdue wants to bring down crime- and prison-related spending. Well, governor, just put two and two together, and do the right thing.

Part of this column was published in 2008.

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