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Decriminalization vs. Legalization

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As Maryland is poised to become the next state to decriminalize marijuana, MD Delegate Keiffer Jackson Mitchell and LEAP Executive Director Neill Franklin debate whether it can end the racial disparity in drug-related arrests.

As Maryland is poised to become the next state to decriminalize marijuana, MD Delegate Keiffer Jackson Mitchell and LEAP Executive Director Neill Franklin debate whether it can end the racial disparity in drug-related arrests.


JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

This week, the Maryland Senate voted 34 to eight to decriminalize marijuana. It will soon be the law here in Maryland after Governor Martin O’Malley said he’ll sign the bill, which would impose only civil fines, rather than criminal offenses, on those caught with less than ten grams of marijuana.

But what else is in the bill? There’ll be fines for multiple offenses. A second violation would carry a $250 fine, and a third offense would have a $500 fine. Also, a violator who is younger than 21 would have to appear in court.

Maryland will be joining 24 other states that have either decriminalized marijuana or legalized it.

Now joining us in-studio to unpack how this will affect everyday citizens are our two guests.

Neill Franklin is the executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, otherwise known as LEAP. He’s worked in law enforcement for more than 30 years and witnessed the war on drugs firsthand.

Also joining us is Keiffer Jackson Mitchell. He’s a member of the Maryland House of delegates for the 44th District in Baltimore City, and he voted for the bill decriminalizing marijuana in the state of Maryland.

Thank you both, gentlemen, for joining us.



DESVARIEUX: Okay. So let’s just jump right into this. Keiffer, I’m actually going to start off with you—actually, you know, let’s first start off with Neill, because I know at the end of the day we all recognize that the war on drugs is not working. And we are seeing—I want to pull up this chart—how it affects disproportionately African Americans. So you can see in these two charts there’s twice as many blacks going to jail as whites for marijuana possession despite usage levels being about the same.

Neill, I know that you’re critical a bout the bill because you guys are pushing, really, for legalization. But isn’t this a step in the right direction? Oh, absolutely it’s as step in the right direction. Obviously, I would prefer to legalize it, tax and regulate.

And the reason I think it’s better for us to keep looking forward to tax and regulate is because even though we’re not going to be criminally charging people for possession of ten grams or less of marijuana, what happens when they can’t afford the $100 fine? Okay? Certain people will be able to afford the fine, but our poor communities will not. Folks in our poorer communities will not. And I believe it then becomes—a bench warrant may be issued, or if they don’t show up in court, then we’re back into the criminal realm. So in that sense it’s still problematic.

And in decriminalization, as what this bill is about, still does nothing to get our marijuana dealers off of our street corners. Okay? It’s still, you know, thousands if not millions of dollars going into the hands of criminal gangs and organizations, and ultimately ending up in the pockets of the cartel. And, again, marijuana across this country, really, around the globe, is roughly 60 percent of all the profits being made in the entire illicit drug trade. So, again, moving to a place of legalization, you know, tax, and regulation will bring that money away from criminal organizations, out of the pockets of criminal gangs, and into the pockets of our citizens and our state coffers.

DESVARIEUX: Keiffer, I wanted you to—get your response, address that first point that Neill made about us actually just getting back to where we started, people not being able to afford these fines.

MITCHELL: Right. Right. Well, we—you know, the bill, I think, is—it’s a step in the right direction as it relates to criminal—in terms of the civil penalties. You know, you have the escalating fine of $100 to $250, and $500 on a third offense.

The fact remains that, you know, marijuana is still illegal in the state of Maryland. And to show that it is still illegal, you have these penalties. You know. I don’t think if we had lowered the fine or anything like that, I don’t think it would send much of a message that it is still a illegal narcotic in the state of Maryland and other states. So, you know, I think the $100 fine is right, and I actually think that the $250 and $500 fine is also right, with all due respect, a step in the right direction.

As—I always call him Colonel in everything, ’cause that was his title—as Colonel Franklin has said, that, you know, it’s not going to get the drug dealers off the corners, things like that. But I always remind people from the study, Maryland spends about $106 million just on enforcing marijuana policy or arrest or prosecution. So you take that $106 million. Now you can start using that money to really go after the enforcement of the larger dealers. So I think that’s a step in the right direction.

DESVARIEUX: Neill, I see you nodding your head, but—.

FRANKLIN: I’m nodding my head about the money that we’re currently spending, you know, with criminalization. And, you know, the time and energy that our police department is wasting on this.

I might disagree a little bit with that, what—the savings going back into law enforcement, you know, to work on other, you know, drug dealers and whatever. I think, personally, I would like to see that money go to education and treatment and go into our school systems. And I know you won’t mind [incompr.] maybe part of it can go there because he’s a teacher, he’s an educator. So I think that we need to continue to pull the police out of the drug-management business and put more of our resources into health and education.

And I think that the police should focus more, use the time that they’re going to have now, to focus more on violent crime, to focus more on robberies and rapes and crimes against our children, domestic violence. We know we have a problem in Baltimore with both domestic violence investigations and rape investigations, and I think we could focus more on that.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. So—. Oh, sure. Please.

MITCHELL: Real quick, on the fine piece before we leave that, the $100, $250, and the $500. That money also is going to be going toward drug education and drug treatment. So, you know, that money is not just going into the general fund just to sit in the general fund, but it is supposed to go toward drug treatment.

DESVARIEUX: So we know where you two stand. But let’s bring in the American public’s opinion. So there was a recent New York Times-CBS poll that found that the majority of Americans actually support legalization. So, Keiffer, shouldn’t the legislation that’s put in place be reflective of that? Shouldn’t we be pushing for legalization, then?

MITCHELL: Oh, I am one of the minority. I should be counted as a minority in that New York Times-CBS poll. I am not there yet as it relates to legalization. I still believe that marijuana is a gateway drug. I would like to see more studies about the legalization of marijuana.

So far, right now Colorado and Washington are legalized. I think it’s still too early to find out what are not just the whole ramifications of that, but also, you know, what are the unintended consequences of legalization that they are seeing in Washington and Colorado, and also remind people that it wasn’t their legislators that voted for it; it was a referendum by the public at the polls. So, you know, those are the things that took place as it relates to legalization.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. Neill, what’s your take on that?

MITCHELL: Well, obviously, the polling that we’re talking about continues to move in the direction of more support nationally from our citizens, more support for legalization. Every year, the percentages go up.

I think I have an advantage over most people in looking at this because I’ve been in law enforcement for a number of years, worked, you know, on the front lines of the war on drugs. But that’s not where it ends. I’ve also been on [incompr.] I’ve also cochaired committees dealing with—from a health perspective, dealing with treatment and education in Harford County. I did that for a number of years. I’ve traveled around the country. I’ve traveled around the globe. I’ve got this—I’ve had the opportunity to literally see this from a mountaintop perspective, you know, looking down around the entire landscape on this drug-management issue. And so I see it differently.

I see that the current illicit marketplace is the gateway. It is the environment that is the gateway, not a particular substance or drug, but the environment that we have of drug dealers acting on our corners hiring kids to sell drugs, marijuana and other drugs, recruiting them from our schools, bringing them out onto the street corners, to sell drugs in schools to other children. We’ve created an environment with policies of prohibition that puts more drugs into the hands of our young people than any other scheme we could possibly imagine. This is the worst. And we realized that back during the times of alcohol prohibition. That’s why alcohol prohibition only lasted 13 years instead of four decades.

DESVARIEUX: So you obviously don’t agree with that, Keiffer.

MITCHELL: Well, like I say, it’s still too soon. I mean, we’re dealing with marijuana, but you also—.

And I agree that the war on drugs has not worked and the amount of resources we have. You know, there’s no question about that. I also believe that the war on drugs has created this racial disparity in terms of who gets locked up and who doesn’t and where the enforcement is taking place.

But on the other hand, I also believe that, you know, with marijuana, in terms of what I’ve read and what I’ve learned, is that marijuana is a gateway drug. And then where do we stop, in terms of the legalization? You know, you have heroin. [incompr.] a district in West Baltimore where I come into contact with heroin addicts all the time. You can just go a few blocks over here to Lexington Market, in that area, and look at the number of methadone clinics that are in that area and look at the number of people who are hanging around getting their methadone for the day but who are out there, who still want that hit or something like that.

I think there needs to be a combination: instead of just the enforcement, the educational piece, you start off young, you get into the schools.

We’ve lost—. I am a Democrat, alright? I’m a big-time Democrat. But, you know, when Nancy Reagan and Ronald Reagan were talking about the war on drugs, they started going into the schools, giving kids the education, and you had the “just say no” type campaign. I still believe that you have to get and spend your resources and time in the schools to get them while they’re young.

And also there are some other programs that are put in place in terms of jobs. You know, kids I talk to who are dealing drugs and that sort of nature, you know, they want jobs. But they’re not—if they can make a lot of money standing on a street corner instead of flipping burgers somewhere, they’re going to look at taking care of their families and making that money. But you have to get them other resources out there for that.

DESVARIEUX: So, Keiffer, if I’m understanding you correctly, do you think legalization would just lead to just more usage and therefore—?

MITCHELL: That’s what I—I believe it would lead to—I think it would send a wrong message, and I do believe that it will lead to more usage.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. Neill, do you have any—to counter that?

FRANKLIN: Well, we are really at the same place for the most part of this. Putting our resources into education and treatment first in front of law enforcement and criminalization, yeah, that’s where we should be and that’s where we’re not at the moment.

The other side of that coin as it relates to those wonderful programs in our schools, you know, educating our kids, the other side of that coin is the family. You see, once the family unit is actually more effective in keeping kids away from using drugs and doing things that will harm them. There’s more legal things out there that will harm our kids than those that are illegal.

But our policies of prohibition have destroyed, for instance, the black family, the mass incarceration and the disparity issues. You know, when you have so many—according to the NAACP, one in nine black children have a parent or parents in the criminal justice system. For white children it’s one in 54. Okay?

Now, when you have families, when you send someone to prison, you send the entire family to prison. And we know when you send someone to prison they do not return to us a better person. For the most part, they’re going to return to us and our communities in worse shape than what they were when they went in in how they treat people, because when you go in, you have 24 hours to decide whether you’re going to be the prey or predator while you’re in prison. Most people return to us as predators, because they are not correctional facilities. In addition to that, when they do return to us, very difficult to get a job because now they’re strapped with a criminal record. Okay? That frustration, many of them can’t even live with their families if their families are living in public housing, because they’re a convicted drug felon. You know, that does nothing for our communities. That does nothing for the children who live in those households in working to keep them from using drugs or becoming involved in the drug trade.

I think it has to be some of both. I think it has to be, obviously, putting our money and resources into education and treatment. And then, on the other side of that coin, we have to eliminate the illicit trade. We have to take the money out of that business so people will feel comfortable working at and feel good about working at places like McDonald’s and Walmart and some of the other places.

DESVARIEUX: And the way you take the money out is by legalizing it.

FRANKLIN: That’s the only way to take the money out.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. Alright. Let’s move on a little bit. And I want to get your take on just why do we not know enough about—. I want to speak specifically about legalization in Colorado, ’cause I know you were there, Keiffer. Can you just describe a little bit about what you witnessed? And I’ll get your response to—.

MITCHELL: Last year, I was there for a conference, and I walked around downtown Denver in the tourist area. And I guess they call it LoDo. And the smell of marijuana was inescapable. You could smell it as a tourist. Now, I don’t know if they’ve done anything to rectify that or to, you know, curb it, but it jumped out at you. You know, it is one thing when it’s cigarette smoke. You know, people know what cigarette smoke is. But when I was out there in the tourist area, it was out there. I don’t think they’re allowed to smoke in restaurants or bars and cafes at all. But you—you know, I saw people smoking marijuana sitting on a bench at a bus stop or walking down a street smoking.

And, you know, I grew up in an area where I don’t do drugs, don’t do it, and it was out there, and it made for an unpleasant experience for me as a tourist walking around Denver.

And this past November of last year, the mayor of Denver was in Washington, D.C., and I talked to him and I told him about my experience, and he said that, you know, when the referendum came to light and it was implemented, there were some unintended consequences that kind of left holes along what local jurisdictions can do in terms of a time and place about marijuana and where they can smoke it, and then the dealing. They still have to work out the kinks.

So, in other words, what I thought that he was saying was that it kind of put the cart before the horse, so to speak, to say this is what we need to do. So I think locally there needs to be some things put in place to allow—you know, if they were going to smoke marijuana, but, you know, not all of us need to be around it.

DESVARIEUX: Yeah, these are some legitimate concerns. You have people who are saying, you know, if you legalize it, then, you know, these unintended consequences are going to be arising.

Neill, how do you deal with that?

FRANKLIN: And I agree. And that not only will change; it is changing there, because, first of all, this is something new. for most people. Okay? And, you know, a lot of that is just celebration. You know, oh, wow, we have the freedom to do what we want to do. But that is changing as the local jurisdictions put, you know, policies in place, you know, so the people will be writing people tickets. You’re smoking on a park bench? Here’s your $50 ticket or whatever that fine is going to be. But I think it goes even beyond that. It goes to the place of what we did with tobacco products.

So it’s a social thing. You know, it’s people—also people at the bus stop bench saying, you know, hey, put out the joint until you get home, okay? You know, I don’t want to smell it. I understand, you know, it’s legal now, but no. You know. And that’s what we’ve done with tobacco products. You know, people actually feel like outcasts who smoke tobacco products today. And it will be the same socially. We will apply that pressure to people who are smoking marijuana so you won’t have that environment. You know, like, today, when you go outside and you’re out and about, I very seldom smell cigarette smoke. I can’t remember the last time I had. This is new with marijuana, and it’ll change, just like we’ve done with tobacco.

And, also, with tobacco what we’ve done over the past couple of decades, the most—one of the most, if not the most addictive drugs known to man, nicotine, reduced consumption by about 40 percent. We’ve sent no one to prison. We don’t have any shoot-outs in our streets. And our kids aren’t coming out of school to sell it on street corners, because it’s regulated and controlled. But social pressure and regulations in place locally have reduced our tobacco consumption.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. Neill Franklin, executive director of LEAP, and Keiffer Jackson Mitchell, thank you both for joining us.

MITCHELL: Thank you.


DESVARIEUX: And, of course, you can follow us on Twitter @therealnews, and you can send me comments, questions @Jessica_Reports.

Thank you so much for joining us on The Real News Network.

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