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Now is the time for Utah to decriminalize marijuana, writes Robert Gehrke

Our arcane, ineffective and unfair law has punished too many Utahns with no tangible benefit

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) This photo depicts marijuana plants growing in a Utah medical cannabis nursery on Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020. With the U.S. Senate considering legislation to decriminalize possession of marijuana, is it time for Utah to do the same?

Over the last several years, Utah police have arrested someone for marijuana possession every hour of every day.

That means in the time it takes to watch a Jazz game, three Utahns are popped and face the prospect of a $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail for having a dime bag or a couple edibles in their possession.

At the national level, New Jersey Sen. Corey Booker and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer are pushing legislation that would decriminalize marijuana, rolling back an arcane relic from our failed War on Drugs.

There are plenty of good reasons to do it.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

A criminal conviction for marijuana possession carries with it a host of other collateral consequences, some of them severe. It can impact the ability to rent a home, impact student loans or government assistance, affect professional licensing — fallout disproportionate to the severity of the supposed crime.

“As defense attorneys, we see first-hand how people’s lives are destroyed by the overcriminalization of marijuana,” Steve Burton, president of the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers told me. “Although we recognize that some regulation may be appropriate, by punishing otherwise responsible people with arrest, criminal records and potential incarceration, current marijuana laws frequently cause significant and lasting harm to individuals without achieving any meaningful benefit to society.”

Existing marijuana laws are not evenly enforced. According to data compiled by the ACLU, Black Americans are 3.6 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than their white counterparts, even though studies show the rate of use is very similar between the two groups.

Decriminalization enables law enforcement to focus resources on more urgent needs, rather than chasing down trivial pot busts and it eases the burden on jails and courts.

Moreover, cannabis is generally accepted to be less harmful both to individual and public health than alcohol consumption or cigarettes — both of which, of course, are legal.

It helps explain why a record-high 68% of Americans favor legalization, according to a Gallup poll in November.

Eighteen states, two territories, and the District of Columbia have legalized small amounts of cannabis for adult non-medicinal use, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, with Connecticut, whose law took effect this month, being the latest.

And the doomsday warnings of marijuana opponents notwithstanding, studies of states that have decriminalized or even legalized possession of marijuana generally show the concerns are unfounded.

An analysis of existing research on the effects of legalized cannabis published in April were largely favorable.

Multiple studies have found states with medical marijuana programs saw decreases in youth use of the drug and three studies saw either a decline in use among youth or no change (one found an increase).

Research has found a 20% decrease in binge drinking and a 5% drop in alcohol sales in states where cannabis is legal, as well as a 12% decline in frequent teen tobacco use. Studies on the effects of road safety in states that have legalized cannabis are split.

Finally, states with legal marijuana saw a 19% drop in crime, including as much as a 20% decrease in theft and a 30% drop in rapes.

It adds up to a pretty compelling case in favor of passing Booker’s bill (which the House has already passed and President Joe Biden has said he supports). Hopefully Sens. Mitt Romney and Mike Lee see the wisdom, as well, and support it.

But that still only addresses half the problem, because it would still be a crime to possess marijuana in Utah (without a medical card) and police arrested nearly 8,800 people a year between 2017 and 2019.

Prosecutors have some discretion in how to handle these cases. Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said his office has a pilot project where first-time offenders caught with small amounts are eligible for pre-trial diversions, can enter into a plea in abeyance — meaning the case goes away if they don’t re-offend in a given time— the offender can pay a fine or do community service, and come out on the other end without a criminal record or jail time.

“The real question is: What is the harm, as a matter of public policy, that we’re trying to address?” Gill said. “What is the investment of tax dollars to address that issue? And are we getting a return on investment for those tax dollars?”

It simply doesn’t make sense, Gill correctly points out, to treat possession of heroin or methamphetamine the same as possession of a small amount of weed.

“I’ve looked at the collateral consequences of a conviction and I’ve looked to see the disproportionate impacts of those convictions [on certain populations],” Gill told me last week. “I can still utilize my discretion in a way that catches your attention for enforcement purposes and respects the statutory framework.”

Prosecutorial discretion is a good stopgap, but to really address the issue, there needs to be action at the state level. In 2015, the Legislature reduced penalties for minor possession, but purposely avoided the issue of decriminalizing cannabis.

Now, with federal legislation teed up, it’s time for the Utah Legislature to take the next step, replacing the criminal offense with a small civil fine — $25 to $50 for a first offense — and to wipe away the criminal records of those first-time offenders convicted under the old statute.

We’ve gone too long with a law that is costly, discriminatory, illogical and ineffective and damaged far too many lives in the process.

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