The war on drugs is a failure, yet there is another useless “get tough” bill proposed by Massachusetts state legislators, House Bill 477. This bill is an attempt to re-criminalize possession of one ounce or less marijuana in a school zone.
As I look at this or any new criminal law I ask several questions, some of which include: What are our crime prevention needs? What are our options? What do we anticipate these options will do? What have these options done elsewhere? What are the unintended consequences of the options? What is the cost-benefit of each option?
Let’s consider some facts.
First, the average rate of marijuana use by teens is lower today than since its high point in the 1970s and early 1980s. It is also lower today than its high point in the 1990s.
Second, the easiest place for drugs to enter a school district is not through someone possessing marijuana within a school zone, but through students who steal from their parents’ prescriptions or through the sale of their own prescription medication.
Third, drug addicts are biologically addicted to their drug and ex-drug offenders have the highest rate of recidivism; threats of incarceration are useless on this group of offenders.
Fourth, incarcerating non-violent drug possessors doesn’t result in increased public safety but it does increase the prison population which is costly.
Fifth, not all drugs are the same and some are much more harmful than marijuana. Sixth, since marijuana is a Class D substance, a second offense would constitute a two-year mandatory minimum. On Oct. 31 the U.S. Sentencing Commission issued a report reproaching the utility and effectiveness of mandatory minimum penalties.
I am completely opposed to the use of recreational drugs or abuse of legal drugs. I have never used marijuana. There is no personal interest here. My parents own a pharmacy in Attleboro and Plainville and my younger sister is a pharmacist in the Attleboro store. Both of my parents have been held up by drug addicts, and my sister deals with them all the time. Moreover, I worked with kids for seven years, and I worked in a prison and a jail, which are largely packed with drug offenders. I know something about drug offenders and the importance of keeping them away from kids. But this is not an emotional perspective; this is a fact-based analysis.
This bill is a waste of time.
It is a distraction from what we should be focusing on, which is prescription drug abuse in schools and the intentional distribution of drugs to kids, not possession coincidentally near a school. This bill won’t result in enhanced public safety and it won’t result in less marijuana possession in school systems. But this bill would increase the prison population, which will cost taxpayers more money. And it will decrease the quality of life for some addicts caught up in the tentacles of the criminal justice system, who belong in the public health system.
Drug courts are an alternative means of dealing with drug possessors, which includes recreational users and addicts. With the presence of a judge, the defendant’s lawyer, a drug therapist and a probation or parole counselor, drug courts target the unique underlying behavior and specific risk factors and address the medical needs of the person in question. There are 22 drug courts sessions operated by the state courts and we need more. The research is clear: drug courts decrease drug-related recidivism, they are more cost effective than prison or jail, and they have less unintended consequences on the individual than traditional sanctions. The medical community is consistent in the view that drug possession for recreation use or due to addiction is a public health issue.
If I were to compromise, I’d say amend the bill before passing it. The amendment would include the use of drug courts in place of incarceration, especially for a second offense, which requires a mandatory minimum. We can’t incarcerate our way out of a public health problem.
Let’s make law and policy based on actual risks and needs, and what will work to reduce risks and address needs.
PAUL HEROUX of Attleboro is a former Director of Research and Planning at the Massachusetts Department of Correction, and former Assistant to the Commissioner of the Philadelphia Jail System. He has a Master’s in Criminology from the University of Pennsylvania and a Master’s in Public Administration from the Harvard School of Government. Paul can be reached at PaulHeroux.MPA@gmail.com.