In Our View: Drug Debate Gets Sensible

Pragmatic stance on offenses, penalties doesn't mean abuses will be ignored

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There is, quite often, a fine line between permissiveness and pragmatism. While we must remain wary of permissiveness toward drug use, it is encouraging to see some common sense entering the discussion about how society should deal with it.State Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, has indicated that he will co-sponsor a bill in the Legislature next year to reduce penalties for illegal drug possession. Under state law, those caught with an illegal substance or more than 40 grams of marijuana can face felony charges, punishable by up to five years in prison. Sensible Washington, a political action committee, is pushing for legislation that would make those charges misdemeanors, punishable with up to 90 days in jail.

Anthony Martinelli, a spokesman for Sensible Washington, said the goal is "to stop labeling people as felons, filling up our prisons and ruining their lives in the process, for possessing a small amount of an illegal substance." Moeller, a chemical dependency counselor, said the bill would ensure that "the punishment fits the crime better."

That is a pragmatic stance. For decades, the United States has been engaged in a War on Drugs, and the results have been debatable. On one hand, the rate of major crimes has dropped in the past 20 years, and many law-enforcement officials attribute that -- in part -- to the aggressive incarceration of criminals affiliated with the drug trade. For example, according to FBI statistics, the number of murders in the U.S. dropped from 23,760 in 1992 to 14,612 in 2011, despite a growing population.

On the other hand, not all of that decline is the result of the War on Drugs, and such a war has carried an enormous cost. According to the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, a total of $211 million was spent in the state from 2000-2010 enforcing marijuana laws. In an attempt to battle the scourge of drugs and the toll they can take on communities, we all too often can't see the forest for the trees.

Washington voters took steps toward acknowledging that last year when they approved Initiative 502, which legalizes the recreational use of marijuana. That's not to say that marijuana is harmless, but as The Columbian wrote editorially prior to the election, "The longer we fight the war against marijuana, the greater grows the defeat."

With that in mind, the proposed bill to reduce criminal penalties for drug possession is important partly because of what it does not include. The bill would not change how the state punishes people who possess drugs with the intent to sell them. While we encourage pragmatism regarding the prosecution of those who possess a small amount of drugs, we urge no leniency for drug sellers, those who manufacture illicit substances, and those who commit other crimes related to the drug trade.

The Obama administration, led by Attorney General Eric Holder, also is attempting to take a more reasoned approach regarding drug laws. Holder recently urged changes in how drug crimes are prosecuted at the federal level, saying, "Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law-enforcement reason." According to the London-based International Centre for Prison Studies, the U.S. has 5 percent of the world's population but incarcerates nearly 25 percent of the world's prisoners.

That clearly suggests that something isn't working with our drug laws, our efforts to curb demand, and our legal system. Pointing that out isn't a matter of allowing permissiveness regarding harmful drugs; it's a matter of being practical.