Decriminalization (as opposed to "Legalization") refers to simply removing criminal penalties for marijuana or any other drug. It usually means that possession of personal amounts becomes a civil penalty (like a parking ticket), but some people also take it to mean the complete removal of cannabis laws from the books. A civil penalty bill (HB-541) was attempted in the 2009 Montana legislature, but it did not pass.
Here’s why I think decrim is not worth fighting for.
First, let’s dispense with the "remove all cannabis laws from the books" proposal. As an intoxicant, treating marijuana like spinach or dandelions will simply never happen, at least not this century.
There is decent public support for the idea of civil-penalty-style decrim. People generally don’t think you can or should go to jail for possessing marijuana, but Montana law specifies a jail term of up to six months for just a single joint. Even if you don’t go to jail, when you’re convicted of a crime, you consequently acquire a permanent criminal record that will show up in background checks, you may be drug tested, lose your job or housing, be barred from professional associations, education, grants, public assistance, gun ownership, and so forth. So, the idea of decrim, protecting the end user from these consequences, seems sound.
My three main problems with decrim are:
Decrim leaves the criminal black market intact.
There’s little reason for people who do not use marijuana to support decrim.
Decrim supports the lie that there’s something wrong about marijuana use.
Decrim and the Black Market
So, imagine that decrim has passed and now marijuana enthusiasts face only a $50 parking-ticket-style fine if they get caught with a personal bag of weed. That’s helpful to the tens of thousands of Montana adults who carry a bag of weed from time to time, no doubt.
But where did they get the bag? From Debbie the Dealer, who A) imported in bulk from Oregon or California or Canada or Mexico, or B) grew it in a closet or spare room or warehouse or garden.
There’s little public support for Debbie’s activities. Her business is "illegitimate"; she commits a felony to engage in it. Big law enforcement budgets are justified by her activities. She risks losing her house and car and everything due to civil asset forfeiture laws. She pays no taxes on her profits. Anyone she hires to help out likewise engages in a felony, pays no taxes, has no workers comp, etc. Her product is not regulated for purity or potency or adulterants. She probably has to deal in cash, and is hence a target for robbery; she may arm herself to prepare for every transaction, which must take place in out-of-the-way locations.
So, decrim, as generally proposed, leaves most of the apparatus of prohibition in place. It would protect a lot of people from arrest, which is a big benefit, but I argue that’s not good enough, especially when you consider my next two problems with decrim.
Decrim and Public Support
You can motivate a lot of people with altruistic arguments about justice and compassion. Lots of people agree that jail time is not an appropriate penalty for pot possession. Nearly all regular users of marijuana (something like 12% of adults) will agree with you. Add in some libertarians and those who smoked pot "back in the day" or know someone who enjoys the occasional "special brownie", and you may indeed get a majority to endorse your decrim proposal.
If we can assuage their concerns though, we should be able to generate even stronger support for a taxed, regulated model for marijuana from:
Parents who want to keep pot away from their kids and consequently demand that marijuana sales require age verification.
Pot-haters who want to "tax those people who aren’t paying their fair share".
Businesspeople who see marijuana as an opportunity for legitimate entrepreneurial endeavors and economic growth.
Local cops and prosecutors and judges who want to spend more time dealing with real criminals that threaten life and property.
Politicians and criminal justice advocates who want to disrupt the criminal gangs currently in control of much of the marijuana industry.
Civic leaders who see the potential for a new income stream for government to support education and health care and other public services.
Economic developers and chambers of commerce and other business associations that see the opportunity for the rise of a whole new class of agricultural producers, processors, and retailers.
If we can do a good enough job describing these benefits to these audiences, we will eventually pass a comprehensive marijuana legalization bill in Montana and nationwide.
Decrim Supports The Lie
My third problem with decrim is that it continues to support the lie that there’s something wrong, something blameworthy, about using marijuana.
By continuing to maintain penalties for merely possessing or growing a plant, we support the absurd contention that there’s something evil about the plant itself, and that those who dare to partake of it are themselves somehow morally tainted. Inherent in such a policy is a denial of our fundamental right as adults to decide what to put in our bodies.
We need to be clear with the public that we do not support driving under the influence, or any other irresponsible behavior with marijuana. But we must object vigorously to the baseless claim that my vaporizer is somehow a sin, while my neighbor’s glass of wine is not.
Decrim isn’t good enough. It preserves the black market, fails to draw support from important groups, and supports the lie that there’s something morally wrong about marijuana use.
Instead, we need to fully legitimize marijuana in a responsible system of taxation and regulation similar to alcohol, being sure to include the right to produce your own at home (as we do with beer and wine).
Anything less just isn’t worth fighting for.
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