Wednesday, January 12, 2011

It's Time To Wake Up And Smell The Marijuana

originally published in the New Britain Herald and Bristol Press, February 8, 2009


Remember in “The Wizard of Oz” when Toto tugged at the curtain and revealed the fraudulent, unsustainable nature of Emerald City’s whole wizard-centric way of running things? For some reason that image occurs to me whenever our fine elected officials give their latest “My fellow Americans, regarding the economy, we’re screwed” speech.

Of course we are. Economies based on unpayable debts, rulers claiming fake magic powers — sooner or later, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” stops working, so you witness the “Come out and fess up” stage instead.

It happened in Connecticut last week. Things are so bad here, our governor went on TV to speechify the state’s economic woes. (Note to out-of-staters: This was a big deal because it’s the first televised speech she’s given in her four and a half years as governor. M. Jodi Rell usually prefers communicating with the masses via more traditional methods, like parade appearances.)

State tax revenues dropped sharply because people have less money to tax, which means they can’t afford another tax increase. Rell, to her credit, said she recognizes that. No tax hikes, she says, but budget cuts will be “painful” and require “sacrifice.”

She later noted, “We can do with fewer laws on the books.”

Amen. I personally favor a constitutional amendment mandating zero-growth legal codes: For every law enacted, an old one must be repealed.

Meanwhile, we’d save lots of money with the proposal of state lawmakers Martin Looney and Toni Harp of New Haven, who suggested following Massachusetts’ lead in decriminalizing marijuana on the grounds that we can’t afford to keep arresting and prosecuting people who use it.

The monetary cost is high enough. There’s also the question of whether an ostensibly free country should have the world’s highest prison population. One-fourth of the world’s prisoners are serving time in the United States, and half of all American prisoners are incarcerated on drug charges. That’s one-eighth of the planet’s prison population whose only crime was using or selling intoxicants no worse — and in many ways better — than alcohol.

If you think marijuana should remain illegal, then repeat after me: “America should take more than 40 percent of its adults, and 50 percent of its high school students by the time they reach graduation, and put them in prison. They all deserve criminal records.”

Seriously, that’s a conservative statistic of how many Americans have violated marijuana laws. Generally via smoking it. Often more than once. Most of us turned out fine.

If full enforcement of a law requires arresting and prosecuting nearly half of a country’s 300 million people, does this suggest something inherently wrong with the law? Or does it instead argue for the selective enforcement we have now, where poor and dark-skinned offenders become “drug felons” while their paler and wealthier cousins largely escape police notice?

Now a practical question. If a decriminalization bill passes the legislature, will Rell sign or veto it? In 2007 she vetoed medical marijuana, which is why Connecticut still prosecutes and imprisons sick people for treating themselves with the “wrong” medicine.

But these prosecutions happened before the economy entered meltdown mode. The threat of statewide financial collapse might change Jodi Rell’s mind where simple human compassion did not.