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Senate Ponders Decriminalizing Marijuana

Possessing up to either one or two ounces of marijuana would be decriminalized and subject to a fine of $100, with additional reductions in penalties for larger amounts, if a bill discussed in the Committee on Homeland Security, Justice and Public Safety on Friday is enacted into law.

After taking testimony from legalization and decriminalization proponents – and from police officials and Attorney General Vincent Frazer, who opposed parts of the bill, but not decriminalization of small quantities – the committee voted to hold the bill for new amendments and more testimony.

The bill sponsored by Sen. Terrence "Positive" Nelson would make simple possession of up to two ounces a civil offense with a fine of $100. If the offender is under the age of 18, he or she would be required to complete a drug awareness program and the parents would be notified. [Bill 30-0018]

Under current V.I. law, a first offense of simple possession of marijuana and other drugs placed in the same legal category is treated as a misdemeanor carrying a potential sentence of up to one year in prison and a fine of up to $5,000. A second offense can get two years and $10,000. The penalty and nature of the crime are not tied to specific weights and volumes. The court, at its discretion, may also place a first-offense perpetrator on probation and dismiss the case and expunge the record upon successful completion of probation.

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Along with decriminalizing smaller quantities of marijuana, Nelson’s bill reduces penalties for possession with intent to distribute small quantities. For amounts less than one pound, possession with intent to distribute would be a misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in prison and fines of $1,000. Penalties increase slightly at larger amounts, and possession with intent to distribute more than five pounds of marijuana would be a felony, with a sentence of up to 25 years in prison.

The goal of changing the law is to reduce the harm caused to young users by giving them a permanent criminal record and to reduce the money spent on enforcement and incarceration, Nelson said. By simply fining users, instead of holding trials and incarcerating them, "instead of a cost to the government, (enforcement) would now be a revenue generator," he said.

Nelson pointed to states like Colorado and Washington that recently legalized marijuana and others that have allowed medical marijuana. He also pointed to a list of states, like Nevada and North Carolina, that have decriminalized small amounts and issue fines instead of criminal convictions.

With this legislation, "we are falling in line with some current trends," Nelson said.

Some people opposing the change have said it would make access easier for children, but there is nothing about the law that would do that, he said. Marijuana is already accessible, "and this law does not stop that, like the current law does not stop it. But should those convicted of possessing it be subject to a life of limited prospects because of this nonviolent offense?" Nelson said.

Joanne Naughton, a retired police lieutenant with advocacy group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, and several members of the V.I. chapter of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws testified in support of decriminalization, but said they preferred full legalization.

Naughton described being involved in sting operations in New York in the 1970s that resulted in hundreds of arrests and convictions of small-time dealers. In the years since, she has come to see that work as misguided and prohibition as more harmful than the drugs it aims to eliminate.

"Yet here we are in 2013, decades later, and not much has changed: people continue to use marijuana and police continue to lock them up. In fact, from 2002 to 2012, the NYPD spent one million work hours arresting people for marijuana possession. Yet, today, marijuana is more available than ever before, purer than ever before and cheaper than ever before," she said.

Ultimately Naughton concluded that prohibition is worse than the drug problem it is aimed at fighting, causing the very drug violence that is used to justify prohibition.

"Besides being ineffective, prohibition causes incredible violence – not because of the people who use marijuana, but because of the very lucrative illegal drug market. Drug dealers don’t go to court to settle disputes; they use guns. They shoot people. Unlike the days of alcohol prohibition when organized crime was in control, today we buy our alcohol from respectable business people. You don’t see liquor store owners shooting it out over who’s going to sell Bud Light on the block," Naughton said.

She also emphasized the potential for gaining tax revenue instead of spending it on enforcement, saying California reported collecting $50-$100 million in taxes from medical marijuana in 2010.

Where other countries have legalized or decriminalized marijuana and other drugs, usage rates have gone down, not up, she said.

"In the Netherlands, where cannabis is de facto legalized, usage rates are half the rates of the US. This was explained by the health minister when he said: "We have succeeded in making marijuana boring," she said.

Prohibition also forces people with cancer, including a woman Naughton knows, to try to get marijuana on the street to help with debilitating nausea, vomiting and weight loss, she said.

Barbara LaRonde, USVI NORML president, and member Tim O’Hara made many of the same points in their testimony but went further than supporting decriminalization or legalization.

"I don’t want to see marijuana imports," LaRonde said. Instead she would like to see it grown locally and "even exported," she said.

Police Commissioner Rodney Querrard, acting Assistant Commissioner Thomas Hannah and Attorney General Vincent Frazer all vigorously opposed reducing penalties for distribution or any effort to make marijuana use socially acceptable or legal. But all three also said they would not necessarily oppose decriminalizing simple possession of small quantities.

Querrard said not enough research had been done on marijuana to say it was not harmful and emphasized that the Federal Drug Administration had not approved it as a medicine.

Lowering penalties for distribution and decriminalizing marijuana would lead to an increase in use and "turf wars" among sellers, Querrard said, reaching the opposite conclusion of the proponents of legalization.

He showed a photo of 71 pounds of marijuana confiscated from a ship, saying the proposed bill would lead to "more of this problem."

Frazer testified he supported the first section of the bill, decriminalizing small quantities, but said lowering the penalties for distribution would cause the territory to "become a drug trafficking center."

Stateside data about incarceration rates does not apply to the USVI because the territory rarely incarcerates anyone for simple possession, he said.

Responding to questions later, Assistant Commissioner of Corrections Dwayne Benjamin said only four inmates were there for simple possession. Another 600 are in the legal system with some alternative to incarceration, such as probation and counseling.

Unlike some stateside jurisdictions, very few people in the Virgin Islands are incarcerated just for simple possession, Querrard testified. And the law allows judges to give first time offenders probation and expunge their records when they complete it, so it does not have to be a permanent criminal record, he said.

Frazer said he opposes personal use, but said it is so common and accepted, decriminalizing it would be a better public policy.

"If they get convicted and serve six months in prison, they will still have access to marijuana in prison, during which time the taxpayers will be paying the cost of his food, clothing and shelter," Frazer said.

"Unfortunately it is so accepted that personal use is seen as nonthreatening and harmless. I disagree with that," he said.

Frazer also urged the Senate to "make sure you hear from the school teachers, principals, the medical community and mental health providers. These are the people who see the effects of marijuana."

Sen. Kenneth Gittens, the committee chairman, said he would have preferred to get this advice in advance of the hearing, so he could invite them to testify.

Nelson said he would be more than willing to work with Frazer and law enforcement to amend the bill to address their concerns, but also that he ultimately favored legalization.

Senators expressed mixed feelings but little outright opposition to decriminalization while questioning the testifiers.

"If 20 percent or 50 percent of people in the Virgin Islands use pot, we really need to move in a different direction," said Sen. Craig Barshinger. "If it was 1 or 2 percent, maybe, just maybe we could stamp it out, but I don’t’ think that’s what we have," he said.

Barshinger talked about walking off the Cruz Bay ferry, past the police station, and a hundred yards later, "young men are openly selling drugs." He said he sympathized with young men growing up there, with few job opportunities.

"If I grew up without any money in Cruz Bay and saw kids making money, I’d consider it too," Barshinger said.

"It is time to have this discussion and I think the 30th Legislature is a good place for that discussion," said Sen. Clarence Payne. "When it comes back with amendments, I’m sure we can smooth out some differences and move in the right direction."

Gittens said he was concerned about ease of access for young people. "But it is time for a discussion. I do agree with that. … This is how the process is going to start and continue until we come to some amicable understanding. But we need to make sure as we decide how to go forward that we set the parameters well," he said.

Sen. Judi Buckley said she had conflicting feelings about decriminalization. She said she strongly supports law enforcement and saw the damage drugs and alcohol do in the community, but also personally knew one person with cancer who suffered terribly under chemotherapy and had to get marijuana on the street.

"The war on drugs has been a colossal failure," Buckley said. But at the same time, drug trafficking creates violence so "we have to be mindful of that when we look at reducing penalties" for distribution, she said.

Buckley asked Hannah whether any amendment could make the bill acceptable to the police department. Hannah said if the maximum amount that is decriminalized is "reduced to less than an ounce, we would look at it again."

Nelson, who is not a member of this committee, asked the committee to hold the bill for further hearing, testimony and amendments.

Sen. Sammuel Sanes moved to hold the bill. Voting yea were Barshinger, Buckley, Gittens, Payne, Sanes and Sen. Tregenza Roach. Sen. Alicia "Chucky" Hansen was absent.

There will be another hearing on the bill in the near future on St. Croix, Gittens said before adjourning the hearing.

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