Why Marijuana Decriminalization Is No Substitute For Legalization

September 12, 2011  |  

When it comes to doing the obvious and morally right thing, the United States sure likes to take the hard way.

The country couldn’t have just ended Black slavery, it had to first fight a war for it first.  Women couldn’t just get the right to vote; they had to protest in the streets and wait for a constitutional amendment to be passed in order for the country to recognize equality among the genders.  And when we wanted to pass universal health care in this country, well we are seeing how A$$-backwards this process turned out to be. In all of these incidences, the obstruction, as I see it, always seemed to land squarely on the political maneuvering from a select few, who seeks to stigmatize and manipulate what should be the most obvious solution to an injustice for the purpose of financial or political gain.

Let’s take for example the so-called decriminalization of cannabis aka marijuana aka pot, which has occurred in certain locales like Cook County in Illinois and Philadelphia. Decriminalization, for all intents and purposes, is the lazy step-child to legalization. Under the auspicious nature of reducing punishment, related to possession of small quantities of marijuana, as a misdemeanor charge, those convicted could see a wide variety of penalties from probation and mandatory Urinalysis Test to punishments of 30 days in jail or a fine up to $1, 000.

Since decriminalization still means that you can’t legally sell or use the herb, you still can be denied employment and other services, as misdemeanor conviction remains on your record and available to the public for three years before it can be expunged. Even though you might not go to jail (at least in the short term) if caught with some weed in your possession, you are likely to be subject to civil courts, which in some instances could lead back to a criminal case if you fail to follow through on your civil obligations. And while the majority of Americans would like to end this costly and unnecessary criminalization of marijuana alltogether, the reality is that cannabis prohibition in the United States generates $7.7 billion annually, which means that the street dealers and traffickers aren’t the only ones making money from the black market.

In New York City, pot-smoking residents, who have been caught with small amounts of marijuana, or who have simply admitted to using it, have found themselves ensnared in civil child neglect cases in recent years.  And even though possession of small quantities of marijuana is only a misdemeanor, which is punishable through civil fine in NYC, young black men are still finding themselves targeted and hauled off to jail for marijuana possession in high numbers through “reasonable suspicion” programs such as Stop-and-Frisk.

Last year, Philadelphia implemented a new pot diversion program, which would turn small quantities of marijuana possession from criminal to civil misdemeanors. But while pot smokers won’t face criminal charges, they will still be handcuffed, arrested/detained, fingerprinted and forced into court ordered treatment classes in order to avoid criminal prosecution and have their record expunged. Even in California, which has become the blueprint for decriminalization for medical usage, depositaries and smokers alike are subjected to arrest,  searches and otherpunishments. In all of these instances, the policy shift of decriminalizing marijuana to lower offenses had done little to reduce the targeting of pot-smokers. Rather the real beneficiary is the courts and treatment centers, which stand to make a bit of extra cash from court-order treatment and civil fines.

While I understand that decriminalization is better than the failed criminalization the country has engaged in for the last three decades, I can also recognize that decriminalizing is no substitute for actual legalization.  Despite the growing appeal for municipalities to lessen penalties associated with marijuana, we have not seen reduction in political indifference towards the prevalent prosecution, racial profiling and pre-tenancy drug testing for employment and government assistance. Instead the people have been pacified into believing that we are making progress in this failing drug war, when all we are doing is using covert ways to continue fighting it.

Charing Ball is the author of the blog People, Places & Things.

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