A sensible policy on pot

Lawmakers in Annapolis rejected a bill this year that would have decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana, but prosecutors in Baltimore City are already ahead of the curve in treating the offense as a public health issue rather than as a crime. This is the beginning of a sane policy on marijuana that one can only hope city officials will seek to expand in coming years.

When the idea of treating drug abuse as a medical problem rather than as a criminal justice issue was proposed in the late 1980s by former Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, critics dismissed the suggestion as not only dangerously naive and impractical but as morally and ethically wrong. Yet the passage of time has proved the wisdom of Mr. Schmoke's approach. The fact that city prosecutors now routinely divert people caught with a couple of joints to drug treatment or counseling programs rather than locking them up shows how far our thinking on the subject has evolved over the last few decades.

As The Sun's Ian Duncan reported this week, city prosecutors have offered hundreds of people arrested for possession of small amounts of marijuana a chance to avoid jail time by performing community service or enrolling in drug treatment programs. Supporters of the public health approach, including city State's Attorney Gregg Bernstein, who has greatly expanded the diversion program, say it allows police, prosecutors and the courts to focus their resources on more serious offenders and allows low-level defendants to avoid criminal convictions on their records.

Last year, Baltimore police processed some 68,000 people through the city's Central Booking and Intake Center. That number was substantially lower than a decade ago, when police arrested more than 100,000 people annually for various offenses.

But despite the decline in arrests — and the concurrent drop in crime that occurred over the same period — the fact that tens of thousands of people are still going through Central Booking every year inevitably raises a troubling question: How many of those individuals are there as a result of low-level drug offenses involving small amounts of marijuana?

As more states around the country relax or abolish laws banning marijuana use and possession, it makes less and less sense to imprison people for smoking pot, separate them from their families and stamp them with criminal records that may make them unemployable once they are released. Do such people really need to be in prisons, where there are no facilities for treating their addictions, in order for the rest of us to feel safe?

Marijuana may not be as dangerous or as addictive as more powerful drugs such as cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine, but its abuse can still be disruptive to people's health, careers and families. What users need is not to be thrown into a cell with violent criminals but a way to free themselves from dependence on the drug. To the extent that treatment and counseling in a drug diversion program can help accomplish that, everybody benefits.

A saner policy on marijuana doesn't require police to ignore crimes committed in front of their faces, nor does it force prosecutors to give every offender the benefit of the doubt. As long as recreational marijuana use remains illegal in Maryland, police and prosecutors must have broad discretion in deciding whether more serious punishments are appropriate for people who repeatedly flout the law. Some people are incorrigible, no matter how many chances they are given to mend their ways.

But prosecutors are right to seek therapeutic alternatives to jail, especially for first-time, nonviolent drug offenders who represent no public safety risks. The city's diversion programs allow the criminal justice system to do that in a way that both protects the public and gives people who truly want to overcome their dependence a chance to do so and get on with their lives.

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