October 20, 2012 in Opinion

Initiative 502: Legalizing marijuana

Pro: Law enforcement should have time, resources to focus on more-serious crimes
James Doherty
 
Many costs

The criminal justice system’s focus on consensual “crimes,” like those involving marijuana, destroys lives rather than protecting them and further strains police budgets.

Over my 30-year legal career, I’ve worked as a prosecutor, public defender and corrections official. I encountered many disturbed individuals and saw a lot of horrifying cases – rape, murder and child abuse. Sometimes it was difficult to go to work knowing what awaited me. But I did go because I wanted to believe my actions were making the community safer. As time went on, however, it became increasingly apparent that the criminal justice system’s focus on consensual “crimes,” like those involving marijuana, destroys lives rather than protecting them. Today, with Initiative 502, the initiative to legalize and regulate marijuana, Washingtonians can vote to reverse this trend. I hope we do.

In 2006, police in Washington solved just over 16 percent of violent and property crimes. That means no matter what toll it took on their life, no matter how they were hurt or what was taken from them, 84 of 100 victims went to sleep knowing that the people who hurt them were still out there.

As someone who worked closely with police for years, I can tell you this is not the result of apathy on their part. They dedicate their lives to the pursuit of justice. But they are not able to fully pursue it because so many criminal justice system resources are focused on marijuana.

While more-serious crimes were going unsolved, there were almost 7,700 marijuana arrests made statewide in 2007. Each one of those arrests meant time and money spent by cops, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, and possibly corrections and parole officials. Each bust meant the real criminals in our society were a little less likely to get caught, a little more likely to victimize someone else. As someone who takes seriously his oath to protect people, this skewed prioritization angers me.

Many will say marijuana use is a victimless crime. I think that in the war on marijuana there are nothing but victims. Each arrest and conviction represents something else, too: lessened opportunities for a lifetime. Many of those convicted will forever after have trouble getting a job, finding a place to live, applying for student loans, voting – the list goes on. They will be branded with a modern day scarlet letter that will forever limit the opportunities available to them. Why should we care? Two reasons:

First, when we start arresting and imprisoning people for consensual moral crimes, we erode the legitimate authority of the police. Communities – particularly poor communities and communities of color that have been disproportionately affected by marijuana laws – stop seeing the police as a protective force and see it instead as an instrument of aggression. They become less likely to cooperate in investigations, or to report crimes in the first place. Few things hinder the effectiveness of a police force more than this loss of trust and cooperation.

Second, petty criminals tend to emerge from jail real criminals. Because of mandatory minimums, many people imprisoned for marijuana are there longer than many violent criminals. During that time, they are both socialized as criminals and apprenticed in the trade. When they find they can’t re-enter society, many find their only option is to graduate to more serious crime.

I-502 will allow police to focus their time on real crimes and real criminals, and reverse this erosion of trust that has plagued our criminal justice system for far too long. For our police. For our communities. For all those who would be better served by treatment than by jail time. Please vote yes.

James Doherty is a Washington resident, former prosecutor and corrections official, and a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group of law enforcement officials opposed to the war on drugs.


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