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Just Say 'I'm Willing To Think About It'

Stan Simpson

April 11, 2009

Jack Cole was driving from Norwich to Hamden with his latest convert in an emerging movement to legalize marijuana. Just so happens that the new recruit is a retired cop. No, he's not undercover.

Actually, it's no surprise that former Manchester Capt. Joseph Brooks signed up for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a Massachusetts-based advocacy group of which Cole is executive director. Most of the 12,000 members are law enforcement types who share at least one thing in common: They want to make marijuana legal.

I'm evolving on this. While still conflicted about whether decriminalizing or legalizing illicit drugs essentially condones their use, I also realize that the government can't continue spending billions punishing behavior that it has not been able to slow or stop in the past 40 years.

We've gotta try another approach. Twenty-two states, including neighboring Massachusetts, have decriminalized marijuana.

"I have long felt that the attempt to legalize morality such as marijuana use was a waste of time," said Brooks, 68, who once commanded a tri-town narcotics task force. "We've been shoveling sand against the tide."

The tide may be shifting in Connecticut. Two weeks ago, the legislature's judiciary committee voted to decriminalize possession of less than half an ounce of ganja by those 18 and older. Instead of being a crime, with a penalty of up to one year in jail and a fine not to exceed $1,000, possession would be an infraction. The maximum fine: $250. The governor has already said she will veto the bill if it gets approved by the House and Senate. That's a big IF. But getting an endorsement from the judiciary committee is a big deal.

I've talked to several passionate drug law reform advocates over the years, including Connecticut's Cliff Thornton. Whenever I talk to Thornton, he wears me out with compelling data and information. (I've taken to privately calling him 'Spliff.' )

The most convincing voices, though, come from folks whose careers were spent as soldiers in the failed war on drugs. They saw the carnage and the squandered resources. Cole, 70, is a retired New Jersey State Police lieutenant. He worked 14 years undercover, including investigating what he described as a billion-dollar international heroin and cocaine ring.

One problem with this drug decriminalization effort is that it could create uneven laws. For example, it is a felony to sell marijuana, but, if the drug reform law passes, it would be less than a misdemeanor to possess it. Heck of a message that sends.

"That's why we're not for decriminalizing drugs," Cole said. "We are for legalizing drugs. When you decriminalize, you only decriminalize for the user. Everybody else in the chain is still a criminal. That means it's still worthwhile for distributors to kill each other to control their portion of that very lucrative market."

The drug-related mayhem and murders in Mexico are Exhibit A. While I'm bending on softening the marijuana laws, and even the idea of taxing its sale, I'm not willing yet to go there with heroin and cocaine. Plus, whenever I ask the reform advocates about the unintended consequences of legalizing drugs, such as joblessness, homelessness, increased addictions, motor vehicle accidents from drug-addled drivers, etc., I feel like I get the runaround. I'm willing, though, to advance the conversation about this.

Next year, Connecticut will spend $709 million for a cottage industry its prison system that houses 19,000 inmates. The large majority of them are in for drug-related offenses.

"Just Say No" no longer makes sense.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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