Solving the Drug Problem starts by Decriminalizing Pot and Reducing State Jail Felony Cases to Misdemeanors…

Many of Grits for Breakfasts blog postings receive numerous hits and initiate heated debate, but Williamson DA Sees Drug Penalty Debate as Turf War really grabbed my attention because it involves Williamson County, which is one of the places I practice criminal defense.
John Bradley, District Attorney for Williamson County, was quoted as saying:
If SJF drug cases become misdemeanors, the shift in workload from district to county courts at law would be substantial. In selfish terms, a DA with only felony jurisdiction (like myself) would suddenly have an enormous percentage of the caseload moved off the docket. A county attorney with only misdemeanor jurisdiction (such as my colleague in Williamson County) would suddenly find herself with lots of new cases.

This would be an extraordinary movement of resources for no reason other than someone deciding to reclassify the crime from felony to misdemeanor. Punishment would require county dollars (in county jail) rather than state dollars (in state jail)….

The discussion became more heated in the comments that followed Grits blog entry.  Although several of them made very valid points, the one in particular really made a point with me:
kaptinemo said…

How many times must the system be ‘tweaked’ before the recognition is made that it is the system, itself, that is the problem?

The ‘system’, in this case, is drug prohibition, which is the font of the complained-about caseload. Prior to 1914 and the Harrison Narcotics Act, which Federalized drug ‘crimes’ such as possession, we didn’t have these problems…or caseloads.

Why bother playing around with trying to unravel the Gordian Knot of drug prohibition and all its’ baggage? We’ve been trying to do that, to the tune of a trillion dollars since 1968, and we’re no closer to achieving a drug-free utopia now than they were back then…as the complained about caseload demonstrates. A caseload we can no longer fiscally afford. It’s long past time to consider the once unthinkable, and to speak the once forbidden, and talk about alternatives to the present – and punitive – DrugWar.

Now, in these difficult economic times, it may really be time to try something new, and different.  I will be the first to admit that the legalization or the decriminalization of all drugs or even most drugs may not be in society’s best interest, I am willing to consider alternatives.  I absolutely agree that these SJF crimes should be reduced to misdemeanor offenses, as too often people are being convicted of felonies for miniscule amounts of an illegal substance.  Even when these people are given deferred ajudication probations, often the conditions are so stringent that a saint would have a difficult time completing them.

So, as kaptinemo wrote about fighting the drug war and spending trillions of dollars, which I agree is a worthless fight and an unwinnable one at that, I propose the following:

  • legalize the possession of less than 2 ounces of marijuana;
  • criminalize its use when driving (similar to DWI, afterall, is pot really any worse than alcohol);
  • allow the government to regulate the sale of marijuana and tax it (similar to tobacco); and
  • reduce the levels from SJF to misdemeanor offenses on other drug crimes.

This process would guarantee that the marijuana is not laced with something more addictive or harmful and would allow the government to create revenue to help pay off its trillions of dollars in expenses.  Not to mention, not fighting the "war on pot" would save counties, states, and the government in general large sums of money (purposely I am being vague as I do not have a figure to write).

Further, it would save money on prosecutions and those convicted of the SJF amounts of other substances.  And, as to John Bradley’s comment about shifting the burden of work to another office, I believe this would only allow a couple of things to happen:

  • assistant district attorney’s would have more time to review and handle the other, "more serious" cases; and / or
  • given that these ADAs are also county employees, nothing would prevent them, aside from politics, from working on some of these lower level cases, unless the agencies in question absolutely refuse to work together or share responsibilities; afterall, both are paid by county tax dollars and both work for "The County".

To conclude, pushing more people into the criminal justice system, whether it is by placing them on probation or putting them in jail or prison is not the answer. We already have the highest percentage of our population involved in this system, at least among the developed world.