Early in June, the American Civil Liberties Union published a study on the illegal use of marijuana in the United States. The media in Indiana reported the findings of the study for both the nation and the Hoosier State. That doesn’t surprise me at all. I would be surprised to learn the media in any state omitted the local findings. Both nationally and locally, two of the ACLU’s conclusions confirm our expectations. They tell us what we thought was true really is true.
First, race is a key factor in determining who is prosecuted for allegedly violating marijuana laws. At the risk of oversimplifying the study’s findings, you can get in more trouble for smoking pot if you’re black than if you’re white. Make that a lot more trouble! Second, the costs of prosecution are skyrocketing. That presents us with the problem of reducing those costs without diminishing the effectiveness of our marijuana legislation. Wait a minute! Who thinks our marijuana laws are effective now?
The ACLU examined a mountain of statistical data in reaching those conclusions. I can’t challenge the organization’s contention that blacks are scrutinized much more intensely than whites when it comes to possible violations of marijuana laws. The evidence seems incontrovertible. Is that unfair to African-Americans? Absolutely!
I am apprehensive about the ACLU’s other conclusion. I must wonder how more lenient marijuana laws and less severe penalties would reduce the unfairness. Subjecting black people to closer scrutiny than white people remains an injustice no matter how much we relax the marijuana laws and reduce the penalties. What’s right is still right, and what’s wrong is still wrong!
Despite the organization’s opposition to unfair treatment of blacks, urging a state like Indiana to soften its stance on marijuana may not be the best solution. The arguments for moderating or abolishing marijuana legislation seem to revolve around money. Providing due process for marijuana offenders is undeniably expensive.
If the penalties were less harsh — fines instead of jail time — those offenders might be more inclined to simply plead guilty and pay the fine. How many people demand a trial for a traffic violation? No doubt some do, but I can’t recall a single one. Legalizing marijuana would not only eliminate a big expense, but it would also create a potential source of revenue. If pot were legal, we could tax it, just like we tax tobacco and alcoholic beverages. Once again, money is the issue.
Still, money isn’t the only issue. Before we tamper with our current policy, we should consider some facts we don’t hear much about: You can become addicted to marijuana. The chance of it happening to you is greater if you’re young when you begin using it. If you drive under the influence of marijuana, your chance of having an accident increases by more than 50 percent. The probability is even greater if you smoke pot and drink alcohol at the same time. If your blood alcohol level is between 0.15 and 0.8 percent, you can be charged with driving under the influence, but if you have any amount of marijuana in your blood or urine, you can face charges whether alcohol is present or not. Your penalty for driving under the influence of marijuana can increase greatly after your first offense. The first time, it’s a misdemeanor. You could serve 60 days in jail, pay a fine of $500, do 180 hours of community service and spend the next two years on probation. The judge can also suspend your driver’s license for up to two years. A second conviction is a felony. You may serve the next three years in prison, pay a fine of $10,000, and spend two years on probation. Suspension of your license for at least one year is mandatory.
I don’t object to reducing jail time for marijuana offenses if the other penalties are an effective deterrent. That probably means stiffer fines. If they’re high enough, most adults pay attention. Yet, I’m much more concerned with young people. Marijuana is only one of the substances that put them at risk. The criminals who try to make addicts of them should get the longest prison sentences possible, no matter how much it costs. And forget about parole. The longer we can keep these walking and breathing abominations away from our kids the better!
Mark Heinig Jr. of Kokomo is a retired Indiana principal and teacher. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.