An Open Letter to Senator Sharon Carson – The Compassion of Decriminalization

Recently, the Concord Monitor agreed to publish yet another liberty-related article. This one was on the subject of marijuana decriminalization. Recently, the Senate decided to “table” a marijuana decriminalization bill that would have helped first time “offenders” avoid getting a criminal record for possessing small amounts of marijuana. The prohibitionists in the senate temporarily killed the bill with typical political chicanery, but the most offensive thing about the whole endeavor was the insinuation this was somehow for the “common people’s” good. That, in spite of very clear signals that the majority of the people in New Hampshire do not want others to go to jail for possessing a plant, people like Senator Sharon Carson would continue to advocate for their imprisonment.

The original piece in the Concord Monitor can be found here, but it lacks the citations that I submitted. You can read it with citations below.

Recently, the New Hampshire State Senate voted to table HB618 – a bill that would have decriminalized first time offenses of marijuana possession.
Senator Sharon Carson, the chief opponent of the bill to decriminalize marijuana, said in the hearing:

“I do not need to remind you of the people in our lives who have been affected by addictions as there is not a person in this chamber, or in the balcony or listening online who has not had some sort of impact.”

I applaud that she seems to feel compassion for drug users and those close to them, but the evidence shows her attack on the decriminalization of marijuana to be an uncompassionate one.
In order for the criminalization of marijuana to be a compassionate approach, it would have to actually deter marijuana use. And yet, in spite of harsh penalties for simple possession of marijuana (up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine), New Hampshire still ranks in the top 7 states in the nation in terms of per capita marijuana use, with total drug related arrests continuing to rise (NH saw a 4% increase in total drug related arrests from 2012-2013).

Meanwhile, other cultures that have experimented with drug legalization or decriminalization are enjoying many positive benefits. Portugal, for instance, decriminalized all drugs in the year 2001, and while it saw a brief rise in drug use at first, drug use has seen steady decline since about the year 2007. In particular, drug-abuse related deaths have dropped nearly 75%, and drug users seeking help “rose dramatically”.

If compassion is our goal, then, why saddle drug users with a criminal record? Who actually benefits from turning drug users into criminals, rather than making it clear to them that they can find the help they need without fearing persecution?

It certainly isn’t the taxpayers. According to a study done by the ACLU, New Hampshire spent more than 6.5 million dollars enforcing marijuana laws in the year 2010, only to have drug use and arrests continue to rise steadily to present day. Surely this money could have been spent better elsewhere – on pursuing violent criminals, for instance, or returned to the tax payers themselves.
It certainly isn’t the African Americans who live in NH. According to a 2013 ACLU study, blacks are 2.6 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in NH than whites are, despite similar rates of use.

It certainly isn’t the people who get arrested for marijuana possession, either. In NH in 2012, 2,327 of our sons, daughters, friends, neighbors, and co-workers were arrested for simple marijuana possession. Aside from the fees and statutory penalties they faced, they also were denied the opportunity to work (due to having a misdemeanor on their record), lost educational grants, and perhaps even their children if they were found to have marijuana in their home.
And while these punishments are supposed to scare would-be marijuana users into passing instead of puffing, they do nothing of the sort. The criminalization of cannabis in the United States and Australia had no observable impact on the rates of marijuana use when those laws were first imposed. Most marijuana users are like people who speed in their car – they assume they won’t get caught, and have no intrinsic motivation to follow laws they don’t believe in.

And let’s be clear – these are laws that the people of New Hampshire, by and large, don’t believe in. According to a 2013 Granite State Poll conducted by WMUR, 60% of New Hampshire citizens support legalization of marijuana up to 1 ounce. And that’s legalization, meaning no penalties whatsoever for people found to be in possession of 1 ounce of marijuana. What the Senate tabled was decriminalization, which is a far less dramatic change.

The NH House has responded to its constituents, pushing forth legislation to the Senate time and time again (this most recent time in excess of 80% in favor of decriminalization), only to have it batted back in their face each time.

So if 60% of Granite Staters are for outright legalization, and 80% of the House is for decriminalization, why did 9 State Senators try to kill this bill before it could even be considered for amendments? Why did Senators Carson, Forrester, Daniels, and Boutin so vigorously oppose the bill, even as their constituents desire that it pass?

Do the people of New Hampshire need representatives who will go against their express wishes because they feel they know better than we do?

I don’t think the Senators opposing this bill lack compassion for drug users and their families. I believe that, in their hearts, they believe stiffer penalties will deter drug use and save a lot of people a lot of heartache, overall.

The problem is that there is no data support the way they feel. New Hampshire is the last state in New England that turns its casual marijuana users into criminals. It’s time that we leave the failed policies of the drug war past behind, and move into a future of compassion. Decriminalization will be the first step in that direction.

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