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The Gateway To Common Sense


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At one end of the debate are the marijuana advocates who decry the failure of "prohibition" and defend the unalienable right to get high. That is not what this debate is about.

At the other end are the hard-nosed war-on-drug partisans who believe any relaxation of the state's drug laws represents further surrender to an overly permissive culture.

In between are most of us, who see prisons crowded with people whose lives were hurt by drugs and whose crimes were sometimes caused by drugs. Among these inmates are some whose crime was possession of the drug itself, a victimless crime for which they are made to pay an excessive penalty.

And yet as one prosecutor stated last week, the court system already winnows out many of the small-time possession charges, directing defendants to diversion or bargaining charges down. Even so, it makes sense to bring the law into accord with practice and with common sense.

That means figuring out the level that constitutes minor possession and sale and establishing civil penalties, like those for traffic offenses.

Of course, if we were crafting laws from scratch, with an eye to consistency and rationality, marijuana might not be an offense at all. Who is to say that the occasional toke is worse than the occasional drink? But given our recent history with drugs, people's fears and the danger posed by other drugs, legalization is not going to happen.

Is American society really ready to have legal marijuana growers selling to joint makers, with state stores supplying a public with its supply of marijuana? Indulging that fantasy is futile. So given the perceived need to keep marijuana use in check, particularly in order to keep it out of the hands of kids, civil penalties are in order.

And yet the larger problem in Vermont is not the number imprisoned on petty drug charges. It is the significant percentage of young Vermonters who suffer the intertwined problems of poor literacy, lack of job skills, inadequate family support and drug abuse. It is not marijuana, the so-called gateway drug, that traps them in this miasma. It is a background of poverty, poor education and family fragmentation.

These young men and, increasingly, young women have created Vermont's crisis in corrections, gobbling up an ever-expanding share of the state budget to house them behind walls. Gov. James Douglas and Sen. Dick Sears of Bennington have been leaders in addressing the drug and corrections policies that might answer the challenge posed by these troubled Vermonters.

The increased role of drug courts, which guide defendants to treatment rather than to prison, has been one valuable approach. Better drug treatment inside prisons is also essential. As advocates of decriminalization argue, getting people out of prison who don't need to be there is also important, achieving the twin goals of saving the state money and improving the prospects for defendants.

These changes have problems of their own. Monitoring inmates who are out on probation or furlough and providing them with housing and employment create challenges. Some cities and towns may also face the challenge of providing residences for a high concentration of convicted criminals. What impact does that have on the cities and towns?

Marijuana is one small part of this larger question. Common sense on marijuana ought to be considered a gateway to common sense on the host of criminal justice issues that are burdening the state. It appears the Legislature and governor are heading in that direction.

Source: Times Argus (Barre,VT)
Copyright: 2008 Times Argus
Contact: letters@timesargus.com
Website: Times Argus
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