Legalize Marijuana—and Reward Criminals?

As with many states, New Jersey is considering a bill to legalize marijuana for recreational use.  However, they are legalize marijuanatying it to a unique program that no other state has attempted to do.  New Jersey proponents also want to expunge the records of thousands of people previously convicted of drug possession charges.

See the article in the New York Times:

The people pushing expungement say that African-American and Latino communities have been convicted of drug charges at a higher rate than other races.  One researcher claims that a black person has a 50% higher chance of being arrested and convicted of possessing marijuana than a white person for the same crime.

So, to legalize marijuana in New Jersey, do they have to reward criminals?

The movement in the legislature is not a free “get out of jail” card.  For instance, the person who wants an expungement must prove they have not been arrested and/or convicted of a drug charge for at least ten years prior.

And many states which have passed laws to legalize marijuana also recognize the race-based higher rates of convictions for Blacks and Latinos.  But have not tied the legalization of pot to those statistical facts.

I worked for over 40 years as both a prosecutor and defense lawyer. I handled thousands of drug cases.  Politicians and groups who have pushed for harsher sentencing for drug offenders claim the purpose is to catch the kingpins. That will stop the sales on the street.  In my experience, that’s the opposite of what actually happens.  The people pulled into the system are the lowest-level users. They sell a little in order to pay for their own use.  Rarely, are the big shots caught.

Since the 70’s, the “war on drugs” has given us jails bursting with low-level drug offenders.  The majority of them are men of color.  Some argue that segments of the communities of color commit more crimes.  Others argue that the entire system is, obviously, racist and unfair.

Whichever side you may agree with the fact remains that too many people are in prison for possession of drugs. There are other ways to handle these cases.  If you have a felony on your record  it’s almost impossible to get a decent job.  That forces many felons to go back into the drug trade to support families.

Should we legalize marijuana and include the expungement of the records of prior felons?

New Jersey has not passed the law yet.  It’ll be interesting to see if they do and what the outcome will be.  It seems like the expanding effort in the U.S. to consider the wisdom of making many drugs illegal may need to be re-thought.

What do you think?

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About Colin Nelson

Colin T. Nelson worked for 40 years as a prosecutor and criminal defense lawyer in Minneapolis. He tried everything from speeding tickets to first degree murder. His writing about the courtroom and the legal system give the reader a "back door" view of what goes on, what's funny, and what's a good story. He has also traveled extensively and includes those locations in his mysteries. Some are set in Southeast Asia, Ecuador,Peru, and South Africa. Readers get a suspenseful tale while learning about new places on the planet. Colin is married, has two adult children, and plays the saxophone in various bands.

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