In Framingham, Massachusetts, anyone who possesses an ounce or less of marijuana is subject to a $100 fine. It’s a straightforward and sensible law—until local police try to enforce it. The problem? There’s no penalty for non-payment, and offenders don’t even have to identify themselves.

Framingham police complain that an 18-year-old carrying a six-pack of beer faces a more severe penalty than someone caught smoking a joint. Even worse, the $100 fine doesn’t cover the cost of sending an officer to court.

Framingham’s weak anti-marijuana law is the result of a 2008 ballot measure that made possession of small amounts a civil crime. Similar measures easing penalties for marijuana possession and use are being adopted in many communities throughout the United States.

Proponents of severe criminal charges say that marijuana is a gateway drug and an important target in the war on drugs. Opponents say that marijuana is relatively harmless, and they point to famous users such as Al Gore, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and William F. Buckley.

Conservative religious leader Pat Roberts on recently made news by calling for legalization of marijuana. Robertson noted that anti-pot laws tend to target African-Americans, incarcerated juveniles sometimes become hardened criminals in prison, and the war on drugs is a huge drain on American taxpayers.

Despite spokesmen like Robertson (and William F. Buckley before him) who opposes marijuana penalties and the softer laws adopted in many jurisdictions, possession of marijuana remains a federal offense. President Obama—himself a former cannabis user—has directed the Department of Justice to prosecute growers in California and other places where medical marijuana has been legalized.

So the debate rages on. Should marijuana be decriminalized? What about legalizing cannabis so that it can be openly marketed and taxed? Here are some issues under discussion:

1.  Is marijuana a gateway drug? Abundant evidence shows that hard drug users tend to start out as pot smokers. But showing a true cause-effect connection is difficult. After all, most hard drug users drank milk as children. What about the huge numbers of marijuana users who never go on to other illegal substances?

2.  How much does the marijuana culture promote drug abuse? Some authorities say that it’s the relationships with other drug users that lead to abuse and not the marijuana itself.

3.  Does marijuana have medicinal value? Documented uses of cannabis for medical treatment have been documented for over 2,500 years. There’s strong evidence that cannabis helps reduce eye pressure for glaucoma sufferers, for example. Other researchers, however, claim that marijuana has no medical benefits.

4.  Is the war on marijuana an effective use of taxpayer dollars and police resources? Some researchers say that cannabis laws have significant benefits for public safety; other researchers disagree.

5.  Are marijuana clinics (legal in California and a number of other localities) legitimate healthcare facilities, or are they a cover for recreational marijuana?

6.  What about the argument that alcohol abuse creates much more social havoc than marijuana? Some research studies show that marijuana is not a significant factor in domestic violence and other antisocial behavior. Are these research findings correct? If so, do they make a convincing case for decriminalizing marijuana?

7.  In these troubled economic times, would legalizing and taxing marijuana provide significant revenues for states facing serious budget shortfalls?

8.  Should scarce law-enforcement dollars be aimed at abuse of legitimate prescription drugs rather than recreational marijuana use?

No one knows what course the war on drugs will take as time goes by. Laws and policies are made by elected officials, not the officers charged with enforcement. But criminal justice professionals with firsthand experience in the war on drugs can make a significant contribution to the decision-making process. Here are some questions that officers can think and talk about:

  • What laws and policies govern substance abuse in your community?
  • What observations have you made in your interactions with marijuana users?
  • How much time and money does your agency spend enforcing laws related to marijuana use?
  • What role do local marijuana laws play in protecting public safety in your community?
  • In your experience, do these laws unfairly target particular groups?
  • What is your opinion of the laws in place in your community? Would you favor changes? Why or why not?

Jean Reynolds, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus of English at Polk State College, where she taught report writing and communication skills in the criminal justice program. She is the author of seven books, including Police Talk (Pearson), co-written with the late Mary Mariani. Visit her website at www.YourPoliceWrite.com for free report writing resources. Go to www.Amazon.com for a free preview of her book The Criminal Justice Report Writing Guide for Officers.

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