NJ: Rutgers Hosts Panel On Marijuana Legalization, How The War On Drugs Factors In

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In the United States, an arrest for a drug-related crime occurs every 20 seconds. In 2016, there were more than 1.57 million drug arrests and approximately half of them were marijuana-related, according to the Drug Policy Alliance.

The Criminal Justice Organization recently held a professor discussion panel regarding the legalization of marijuana and the war on drugs. The panel was moderated by the organization’s president, Sebastien Osiecki, a School of Arts and Sciences senior.

The panel included professors Paul Hirschfield and Philip Nettl in the Department of Criminal Justice, Professor Patrick Carr, the program director of the Criminal Justice Program, and Professor Helene White in the Department of Sociology.

The legalization of recreational marijuana has been a topic of debate and controversy over the years. Hirschfield said that there is not only the aspect of creating and regulating a legal market, but criminal laws would also have to be re-written along with the motion of pardons for anyone with current or prior marijuana arrests on their record.

There are going to be benefits and costs with recreational marijuana legalization, Hirschfield said. Many benefits include increased tax revenue, increased safety and regulation and less taxpayer money spent on enforcing criminal marijuana laws, according to a pro-cannabis foundation from the Colorado General Assembly. On the other hand, many costs exist as well, Hirschfield said.

“When you create a legal market, in some states, it might feed towards the black market of other states that haven’t legalized it yet,” he said.

There is also the question whether marijuana legalization should be a state or federal issue. The federal government is legally authorized to shut down dispensaries at any time they want, even in states that have legalized recreational marijuana, like Colorado and Washington, according to the federal law. States cannot do anything to stop that.

Marijuana is still a Schedule 1 Controlled Substance on the federal D.E.A. registry. Nettl said that none of the states that are currently legalizing marijuana are technically allowed to — they are violating federal law by doing this. A policy from the former President Barack Obama administration pledged not to enforce this. Although, with the arrival of the President Donald J. Trump administration, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said that he would be clamping down on the marijuana industry.

“(Marijuana legalization) should be decided at the state level. States are going to have to be the ones that deal with it in their communities, and their schools and their homes. (But), it does require federal involvement and federal cooperation … there’s a looming threat that this federal government can shut down any state efforts to legalize recreational marijuana,” Nettl said.

If recreational marijuana were to be legalized, Carr said that there has to be clarity on laws regarding arrests. In Carr’s own experience in Philadelphia, the mayor told the chief of police to only issue citations when people were caught with possession of marijuana for their own use. This took away approximately 90 percent of drug-arrest cases, he said. Drug users were now only receiving tickets instead of getting arrested. With the 10 percent that were arrested, police would not even go to the trouble of persecuting.

White discussed the pushback of marijuana legalization that is sometimes questioned by pro-legalization legislators who compare it to alcohol and ask why is there such a resistance against the legalization of marijuana, but not such a push against alcohol. The last ban against alcohol was approximately a century ago with Prohibition.

“In recent polls, more than 60 percent of American adults favor legalization (of marijuana) and more than half of Americans think that alcohol is more harmful than marijuana, where only (approximately) 9 percent think the opposite,” White said. “The attitude of (pro-legalization) is if marijuana is more benign than alcohol, why shouldn’t it be legal?”

White stated that the opponents of legalization are saying that two terrible legal drugs already exist, so why should another drug? Nettl said that a part of the resistance could be because of the influence of the pharmaceutical industry. The industry would rather people go to their doctors and ask for pharmaceutical drugs than self-medicate with marijuana. Police also get overtime pay for drug arrests and drug busts, he said.

Even if legalization did become nationwide, a huge problem still lies in how children younger than 18 or 21 would be prevented from obtaining marijuana or abusing it. White said that drug prevention programs have proven to be effective.

“(These programs) may not stop (young) people from ever using drugs, but they work to delay onset and the research shows the longer you delay onset, the less likely a person is going to become dependent on the substance. Prevention programs, instead of incarcerations, also work on ameliorating the risk factors and increasing protective factors, so they build skills in youth which might help them resist the factors to use substances,” White said.

Nettl said that honesty with youth is important. When youth use marijuana, it causes problems with their brain development. When they start marijuana at a young age, kids are not going to develop throughout the most important years of their adolescence. There must be an effort to prevent that. He said that schools must be involved, because taking kids to court or putting them in jail is rarely the answer.

Programs in the school and home should be geared toward the awareness of what the risks and benefits of marijuana are. Hirschfield said that police should not be educators, for police are very limited in training in terms of working with student environments, and they have a very limited knowledge of youth development. He would much rather see drug counselors help the children.

“The biggest influence on adolescent behavior is peer pressure. There has to be a focus on getting the kids at school who are leaders in the school to really lead that push to show the other kids that they do not need to use drugs,” Hirschfield said.