Written Testimony In Favor of Senate Bill 472, HD 1

To Be Heard By The Members of the House Judiciary Committee
On Thursday March 14, 2013, at 2:00pm

By Paul Armentano
Deputy Director
National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML)

I thank members of the House Judiciary Committee for considering Senate Bill 472, HD 1, which reduces minor marijuana possession offenses to a non-criminal, $100 fine-only offense. NORML supports this change in law.

Under present state law, the possession of one ounce of cannabis or less is classified as a criminal misdemeanor publishable by up to 30 days in jail and a $1000 fine. Amending state law to make these offenses a fine-only, non-criminal infraction will significantly reduce state prosecutorial costs and allow law enforcement resources to be refocused on other, more serious criminal offenses.

Decriminalization would spare thousands of minor marijuana offenders from criminal arrest, prosecution, and incarceration, as well as the emotional and financial hardships that follow -- including the loss of certain jobs, students loans, federal and state subsidies, and child custody rights. Though monetary sanctions would remain in place for violators of the law, decriminalization would spare offenders from being saddled with lifelong criminal records. It will also bring greater uniformity to sentencing in marijuana possession cases.

Such a change would arguably improve public safety. This is because law enforcement resource allocation is a zero-sum gain. The time that a police officer spends arresting and processing minor marijuana offenders is time when he or she is not out on the streets protecting the public from more significant criminal activity. Decriminalization would allow law enforcement, prosecutors, and the courts to reallocate their existing resources toward activities that will more effectively target serious criminal behavior and keep the public safe. Public opinion strongly favors such a reprioritization of law enforcement resources. Marijuana decriminalization enjoys support from the majority of Americans and is already the law in 15 states -- including Oregon, Maine, Nebraska, Ohio and Mississippi. To date, there is not a single instance where lawmakers have ever recriminalized marijuana after implementing decriminalization. Contrary to the concerns of some, making marijuana possession offenses a civil matter would not negatively impact marijuana use patterns or attitudes. Passage of similar legislation in other states has not led to increased cannabis use or altered adolescents' perceptions regarding the potential harms of drug use. In fact, the only United States government study ever commissioned to assess whether the enforcement of strict legal penalties positively impacts marijuana use found, "Overall, the preponderance of the evidence which we have gathered and examined points to the conclusion that decriminalization has had virtually no effect either on the marijuana use or on related attitudes and beliefs about marijuana use among American young people." Senate lawmakers unanimously approved SB 472. I am asking House lawmakers to act similarly and vote 'yes' on SB 472, HD 1.

Author's Note: Paul Armentano is the Deputy Director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).