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Decriminalization as Noble Step Towards Drug Use Reduction

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Decriminalization is the reduction in the measures taken in terms of penalties imposed on people found in possession of drugs. It entails reducing of charges from harsh criminal offences to civil offences like over speeding and are thus punishable by fines. The harsh measures include arrests, prosecution and incarceration, as well as the emotional strain and financial hardships such as losing student loans, being sacked, loss of federal and state subsidies and child custody rights. Former convicts will almost certainly be marginalized in society leading to emotional turmoil that could lead to drugs or even worse, crime.

            Reducing the charge to a civil offense means that the offender will not be slappeed with lifelong criminal records. Fifty years ago The United Nations Convention on Narcotic Drugs came into being, and when President Nixon launched the USA’s war on drugs 40 years ago, policymakers initially believed that harsh law enforcement action against drug producers, distributers and users would lead to a diminishing market in illegal and controlled drugs such as cocaine, heroin and cannabis, and the eventual achievement of a drug free environment for all citizens. The policies were quickly endorsed in the US but statics show an inverse trend.

The policies on the war on drugs however generated widespread negative results for people who lived in countries that produce transit and consumed the banned drugs. The fact that they were implemented abruptly brought with it some unwanted issues. These negative consequences were well summarized by Antonio Maria Costa, the former Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and fell into five major categories:

1. The quick growth of a black market due to the apparent illegality of the drugs that were still on high demand. The cartels were financed by the good profits from the trade.

2. Widespread policy shifts, this was as a result of using limited resources to fund law enforcement efforts intended to address the ever growing and lucrative drug market.

3. The balloon effect which is geographical displacement whereby drug production shifts location to avoid the attentions of law enforcement. A good example is West Africa which has become a major transit and re-packaging base for cocaine following a shift of Latin American drug networks toward the large European market. The drug lords Profit from endemic poverty weak governance, political instability and ill-equipped, corrupt police and judicial institutions. Corruption being a big problem in this region it has bolstered by the enormous value of the drug trade. Criminal networks have infiltrated state institutions, military and the governments. Law enforcers have also joined the latter and as long as money is exchanged, West Africa continues to be the ‘cocaine hub’.

4. Substance preference changes or the shift by consumers to other drugs in case there is a shortage of their drug of choice. The shortage could be due to law enforcement success or the geographical shift of the networks or both.

5. The bad perception and treatment of users, who are marginalized, stigmatized and excluded from society. It is worth noting that a majority are victims of divorces, poverty, child abuse and many other social ills.

 

            For the period between 1998 and 2008, United Nations estimates of annual drug consumption were as follows:

 

 

 

Cannabis

Cocaine

 

Opiates

 

       1998

147.4 million

 

13.4 million

 

12.9 million

 

       2008

160 million

 

17 million

 

17.35 million

 

   %  change

  +8.5%

 

   +27%

 

   +34.5%       

 

 

 

If the table is anything to go by, harsh law enforcement has made the condition worse the world over. In the light of these reliable statistics, it is clear that the policy of harsh criminalization and charging of drug users has been a very expensive mistake (Global Commission on Dug Policy), and governments should take steps to focus their resources on putting drug users into health and social care services and infrastructure development.        

Decriminalizing drugs would also promote public safety nay indirectly. This legislative change would ensure that law enforcement resource allocation is well utilized to solve other bigger cases. Time spent by police officers arresting and processing minor marijuana offenders in all states in America is time when they should have been out on the streets protecting the public from more potentially worse criminal activity.

Passage of this legislation will allow law enforcement officials, prosecutors and the courts at large to reallocate their resources toward activities that will more effectively target serious criminal behavior and keep our neighborhoods safe. Police officer would just write people a ticket that had pre-written penalties for nonpayment. At the moment, cops often hesitate to arrest people found in possession of marijuana because the punishment is either too lenient to bother or too harsh to take the risk, it all depends on the situation. It is ordinary for an officer to stop a car for ordinary checkups but then discover some marijuana cigarettes or their smell hence creating a probable cause for arrest. If the law is passed, in such cases, the ticket is given for the offense and the police officer shifts to other cases.

A CNN/Time magazine sort to find out public opinion on the issue of decriminalization. It was found out that Public opinion strongly favored such a reprioritization of  law enforcement resources: Three out of four American citizens favor a fine over criminal charges for the possession of marijuana. Thirteen states have already enacted various forms of marijuana decriminalization; Connecticut is also on the verge of a shift. Civil fines have replaced criminal sanctions in neighboring states of Maine and Massachusetts. Lawmakers have never recriminalized marijuana after implementing decriminalization showing that the states have excelled well in this field. Countries like Portugal which spearheaded the campaign by decriminalizing in 2001 amid speculation they would fail but the success speaks for itself. The western state of Australia followed suit and since then countries like Canada have also made attempts. In America, if Connecticut manages to approve the bill to law, fourteen states will have taken up decriminalization.

Economically, the government would reap heavily enough to get the American economy back on its feet. In 2005, Jeffrey Miron, a Harvard university economist did research that estimated that if Marijuana was decriminalized, the U.S. governments would save up to  $7.7-billion per year by abandoning marijuana prohibition, it would also gain $6.2-billion from taxing marijuana at similar rates to alcohol and tobacco. Connecticut’s office of Fiscal analysis has in a bid to encourage decriminalization released an interesting estimate that the state will save $885,000 in law-enforcement resources by decriminalizing marijuana alone.

There is a common misconception that that making adult marijuana possession offenses a simple civil matter would not negatively affect marijuana use patterns or attitudes in the society at large including children in the homes. The implementation of similar legislation in the other thirteen states has not led to increased marijuana consumption or altered adolescents' perceptions regarding the potential harms of drug use. It has barely changed the amount taken. Just like in the Portugal case, a grace period is given where there tends to increase but as the legislation sets in, there is a notable drop in consumption.

Decriminalization in the UK, Switzerland, Germany and Australia has been done by implementing harm reduction and public health strategies. These countries have consistently experienced low rates of HIV transmission among people who inject drugs. It had been discovered that syringe sharing is common. Similarly, countries that responded to increasing HIV prevalence among drug users by introducing harm reduction programs e.g. distributing free syringes while counseling drug addicts have been successful in containing and reversing the further spread of HIV. In a sharp contrast, many countries that have relied on repression and deterrence as a response to increasing number of drug-related HIV transmission cases are experiencing the highest rates of HIV among the injected-drugs using population.

 Case Study: Switzerland.

 In the 1980s, the country experienced escalating severe and visible drug abuse. To curb this, a new set of policies were implemented and were based on public health as opposed to criminalization. The policies endorsed a heroin substitution program that targeted hard core problematic users. The method was able to reduce consumption among the heavy users and thus reduced market demand. Criminal activity associated with this drug followed suit. With the dealers, casual users found it difficult to get the drug.

On the other hand, we cannot ignore the fact that common drugs like Marijuana are very harmful. Heroin, cocaine and Benzodiazepines are also known to cause bad side effects, sometimes even death from overdose or suicides. Marijuana is a gateway drug that ruins lives. There are medical evidence that a marijuana cigarette is four times as potent as one tobacco cigarette. The cigarette produces tumors and is a primary cause of respiratory and heart ailments. If marijuana is measured gram for gram, it contains more cancer-causing agents and higher levels of hydrogen cyanide, ammonia and nitric oxide than tobacco. Yale University and other research institutions have all determined that smoked marijuana causes damage to the heart, lungs brain, and the body's T-cells thus reducing the body’s immunity. It has also been found that marijuana can cause significant memory loss and can precipitate psychosis and schizophrenia.

Taking away teeth from current laws sends the wrong message to the youth who are the most susceptible to drug use, increases use of drugs and crime and costs the state more on so many levels. A shocking clause is that if proposals to decriminalize marijuana are passed, possessing a small amount of marijuana in Connecticut (less than one ounce) would be punishable with a fine of up to $90, instead of the former criminal charge. According to a Drug Free America, an ounce of marijuana represents 60 to 120 joints. This translates to less than what an ordinary street drug peddler will carry at any given time.

Decriminalizing marijuana will only pave way for street corner drug dealers to thrive at the expense of children’s safety. The fine imposed when found will be the cost of doing business and the drug peddlers will carry smaller amounts of the drug to be within the limits of the new law. New York City has become the safest city in America after it cracked down on small offenses like peddlers. Addicts who cannot make ends meet will commit all sorts of crime to get money to acquire a marijuana cigarette. Montana is in the process of debating bills that would repeal its medical marijuana reforms due to a huge surge of drug use within the state, drug networks creation and the sky rocketing crime situation. Connecticut is thus going to have to consider all this if the legislation is to be passed.

The clause that seeks to reduce the radius of the drug free zones like schools is very disturbing. It seeks to reduce the radius from within 1500 feet to 200 feet of schools and day care centers. To what argument was this reached upon? It’s a paradox.

Connecticut’s Chief State's Attorney Kevin Kane testified that they could not identify any inmate who was in prison (either pretrial or sentenced) solely for the being in possession of marijuana. The reality on the ground is that these inmates were not in prison solely for possession but had other convictions e.g. assault, rape, theft and most certainly would still be there even if the infraction option had existed at the time of their conviction hence there would seem to be little or no savings to police departments by assuming they spent too much time dealing marijuana cases.

Perhaps some of the most vocal people about the issue are Police chiefs James Strilacci and Anthony Salvatore who believe decriminalization would lead to unintended consequences that have clearly been ignored. In a testimony submitted to the Judiciary Committee they said that like many minor crimes, simple possession of marijuana or even small scale peddling is often a clue to more serious crimes.

In conclusion, weighing the facts and carefully analyzing the available statistics, decriminalization is the way forward. The advantages overweigh the disadvantages three to one. Careful implementation and establishing better metrics, indicators and goals to measure the progress could see a massive drop in the drug consumption figures. The law makers should embrace the move as a move to better service of the citizen.

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