Cutting marijuana penalties cuts incarceration costs

MARGARET SCOTT
MARGARET SCOTT
Posted: May 27, 2012

A bill introduced in New Jersey that would impose fines rather than jail time for marijuana possession offers a more reasonable approach to the war on drugs.

Under the measure, a first-time offender arrested with 15 grams of marijuana or less would face a $150 fine. The fine for subsequent offenses could increase to up to $500, along with referral to a state drug-education program. The bill won unanimous approval with bipartisan support Monday from the Assembly Judiciary Committee. A Senate version was introduced last week.

Unfortunately, legislative approval may not be enough. A spokesman for Gov. Christie has said it is unlikely that the former federal prosecutor would sign it.

Christie similarly took the wrong stance in opposing legalization of medical marijuana. But it would be hypocritical for him not to support a measure that not only would save taxpayers millions of dollars, but also falls in line with his proposal to require mandatory drug treatment, rather than jail, for nonviolent drug offenders, rightly recognizing that addiction is a disease that warrants treatment.

A Rutgers-Eagleton poll last year found that nearly 60 percent of registered voters in New Jersey support relaxing the punishment for possession of small amounts of marijuana. Fourteen states, including New York and Connecticut, have passed similar measures.

Currently, marijuana possession is a disorderly-person offense in New Jersey, the equivalent of a misdemeanor. It is punishable by up to six months in jail, $1,000 in fines, and a criminal record that cannot be expunged, which can make it difficult to find gainful employment.

Statistics show that tough but ineffective drug laws have swelled the nation’s prisons. Almost half of all drug arrests are for marijuana, and nearly 80 percent of those arrests are for possession. Only about 6 percent of the marijuana cases result in a felony conviction, according to the Sentencing Project. Those arrests disproportionately affect African Americans, who represent about 14 percent of marijuana users, but 30 percent of arrests.

Philadelphia allows some defendants caught with small amounts of marijuana to pay a fine and enter an educational program, which leads to their records being expunged.

It’s time the war on drugs took a better approach. Marijuana should be regulated, but reasonable alternatives to incarceration make a lot more sense.

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