News Column

Pot: Almost Legal

June 25, 2012


New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a potential Democratic candidate for president in 2016, wants to reduce penalties for simple marijuana possession.

Long ago, New York's Legislature decreed that private possession of less than 25 grams of pot is a mere "violation" -- less than a misdemeanor - subject to just a ticket and fine. Like a parking ticket, it creates no criminal record. However, police stop-and- frisk tactics used chiefly against black and Hispanic youths force them to empty their pockets, displaying bags of pot in public view, which raises the offense to misdemeanor level.

Cuomo wants to halt such misdemeanor arrests and merely issue tickets to stopped pot-users. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other leaders applaud Cuomo's plan. Various New York newspapers endorse it. But Republicans in the state Senate have raised opposition.

Meanwhile, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel likewise wants to reduce simple pot possession to traffic-ticket status. And candidates advocating at least partial legalization recently won lopsided election victories in Oregon and Texas.

America's culture slowly is easing its disapproval of pot- puffers. The latest Gallup poll found that half of Americans now think the mild drug should be legal. In 1969, only 12 percent held that view. So far, 14 states have lowered marijuana penalties, and 16 states have legalized it for medical use as a painkiller.

We don't think pot-smoking is desirable or wise. Sucking smoke into one's lungs causes cancer and other horrible diseases, as tobacco has proven. But government-enforced prohibition doesn't really stamp out taboo behavior. America's historic prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s was a classic flop.

Millions of police hours are wasted in petty pot pursuit, along with court time, prosecutor time and jail time. Millions of young Americans are branded with criminal records, damaging their opportunity to hold good careers.

Writing in USA Today, Jill Harris of the Drug Policy Alliance said that lowering penalties to traffic-ticket level would mean that such youths "would no longer face life-altering, dream-killing criminal charges for conduct that more than 40 percent of Americans have engaged in at one point in their lives."

Pot-puffing is a social nuisance, like binge-drinking, cigarette smoking and the like. But America is big enough to endure social nuisances, without marking so many young people as criminals.

Source: (C) 2012 Charleston Gazette. via ProQuest Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved

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