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N.H. Legislature Debating Decriminalization

Alaska has done it. So has California, Colorado, Nevada, Minnesota, Mississippi and Maine. A total of 12 states have enacted some version of marijuana decriminalization since 1973 and supporters of a small marijuana reform bill in the New Hampshire Legislature are asking, why not here?

Because, said Rep. Everett Weare, R-Seabrook, "I think you're opening a Pandora's box" of problems and abuse and it "would violate federal policy and federal law."

David Welch, one of Weare's fellow members on the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, understands the concerns of decriminalization critics but the Kingston Republican believes it's time to talk - especially about the long-term potential harm to young people caught in the capricious nature of the criminal justice system.

Welch said that "young people do a lot of foolish things" and that a misdemeanor record for possessing a small amount of marijuana can haunt someone for life. They can be banned from scholarships and federal Pell grants - or even from serving as a police officer and in the armed forces.

"It's a debate we need," the 12-term legislator told Seacoast Sunday. "It's about time we had a discussion about marijuana use on the floor of the House."

The better question might be: What exactly are we talking about when we talk about drug enforcement?

A 'Free-For-All' Debate

Welch voted in favor of the measure to decriminalize marijuana possession at one-quarter of an ounce in a surprising subcommittee vote on Feb. 14. The bill, which would reduce possession penalties from a Class A misdemeanor to a violation with a maximum fine, was approved in the subcommittee and then rejected in the full committee. It's now heading to a likely full floor debate and vote on March 12, but even supporters think it likely won't pass.

The bill is strongly opposed by a wide range of law enforcement agencies across the state and state Attorney General Kelly Ayotte because it might condone marijuana use or would be the first step to wider legalization.

Rep. Otto Grote, D-Rye, is opposed to the bill and was not persuaded by the "various long presentations" he saw at the hearings.

But the law enforcement consensus is not unanimous. Rep. John Tholl, R-Whitefield, voted in favor of the bill in subcommittee and he's the police chief of Dalton. And one of the state's most passionate critics against current drug policy is Richard Van Wickler, the superintendent of the Cheshire County Jail.

Matt Simon, the founder of NH Common Sense, a nonprofit group advocating for marijuana decriminalization, said this year's reform attempt has done precisely what he hoped: encourage debate and discussion.

"Last year we had a free-for-all debate and we want it this year as well," Simon said. "We are working on a way to develop a language to talk about it."

Simon said he founded NH Common Sense a year ago because he's offended by the irrationality of the country's drug policy and how it impacts real lives, but not to encourage drug use.

"If I really want to get stoned, I wouldn't start a nonprofit and spend my time talking until I am blue in the face about these important issues," Simon said. "We are continuing to educate the Legislature because the misinformation runs deeply."

Are We Winning the War?

More than 35 years into the federally led "war on drugs," how one views marijuana decriminalization rests on a number moral, social, cultural and criminal justices attitudes.

Superintendent Van Wickler in Cheshire County said he's sees the abject failure of the "war" approach every day. He said the country has spent more than $1 trillion in the war and the investment hasn't paid off.

"We continue to see an increase in crime, disease, death and addictions," said Van Wickler. "None of these things add up."

Not unlike the military-industrial complex that developed after World War II, the war on drugs complex has set public policy since the early 1970s. Van Wickler is part of a growing cadre of criminal justice insiders who think the country needs a more rational, public health approach to drugs because the law enforcement approach has failed "miserably" - and has become in fact a war on the American people.

"Every two weeks, we build 900 more jail beds in the country and the estimates are that 60 percent of those are from drug-related crimes," he said. "We are spending too much money building prisons and not enough building schools."

Van Wickler recently joined LEAP, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, the Massachusetts-based international organization with more than 8,000 members that includes current and former police officers, narcotics detectives and judges who advocate a dramatic change in course - legalization of all drugs.

Most of all, Van Wickler explains, they are fanning out across the country to challenge the hardened conventional wisdom.

"We don't advocate drug use and, in fact, discourage it all the time," Van Wickler said. "Studies show that decriminalization and legalization do not lead to more use or more crime. It's simply not true."

What has happened is increased corruption, decreased respect for law enforcement and skewed public priorities. It has also exposed the contradictions between the more prevalent alcohol abuse and those of drug abuse.

Rep. Weare said he was not convinced by those advocating change and thinks the decriminalization effort is unnecessary.

"From the information we were given, most young people aren't charged" with a misdemeanor for a small possession of marijuana.

But Rep. Welch, who's not for legalization at all, said he wasn't comfortable with that type of discretion. "If you're not enforcing the law, it's useless."

Source: Portsmouth Herald
Author: Michael Mccord
Copyright: 2008 Seacoast Newspapers
Website: Seacoast Online - Portsmouth Herald
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