Recriminalization : Lenient Pot Laws Going Up in Smoke

Times Staff Writer

James W. Smith believes that California's marijuana laws are anachronistic and that the priority given to enforcement of those laws in this liberal college town is just plain dumb.

He has already organized a political base and is busy collecting signatures to put an initiative on the Berkeley city ballot next June aimed at shaking up city officials' attitudes toward pot.

None of this distinguishes Smith from the legion of drug law reformers who have preceded him in this bastion of progressive ideas--except for one thing. Smith does not want to liberalize marijuana laws. He wants to toughen them.

And he is not alone.

Quiet Reversal

In a quiet reversal of the free-thinking 1970s, state legislators and anti-drug activists in several states--including Oregon, which pioneered marijuana decriminalization in 1973--are rethinking the once-popular movement to reduce penalties for simple possession of personal-use quantities of the drug.

Despite warnings from police and prosecutors that the nascent trend will be ineffective at best and a waste of resources at worst, some anti-drug crusaders are determined to erase the permissiveness implied by liberal marijuana laws at a time of growing concern over cocaine and the violent gangs selling it.

"What used to be the age of the flower children has become the age of the Crips and Bloods," said Oregon Democratic state Rep. Tom Mason of Portland in explaining how the bloody war among crack gangs created support for the recriminalization of marijuana.

To be sure, there is great support for the status quo on marijuana laws and even some interest in further liberalization of those laws. A poll last summer of the nation's local prosecutors for the National Law Journal found that one-fourth of them wanted further decriminalization.

But a poll last month by the Gallup Organization found that 80% of American teen-agers are opposed to reducing penalties for marijuana possession, and 75% of their parents want tougher drug laws of all types.

'Kidding Ourselves'

"With (the penalty against marijuana consumption) merely being a citation, no one is paying any attention to it," said former Long Beach congressman and current California attorney general candidate Dan Lungren, expressing a common idea. "As long as we focus on sellers and not users, we're kidding ourselves. Unless we can do something about demand as well as supply, we will never make headway (in the war on drugs)."

Popular support of liberal marijuana laws appears to be flagging as fast as the consumption of pot itself. Figures released in July by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services showed that the total number of "current users" of marijuana fell by 33%, to 12 million people, between 1985 and 1988.

Earlier this year, lawmakers in Oregon and Washington stiffened the penalty in those states for simply possessing small personal-use amounts of marijuana. William Bennett, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, urged a similar course for California during a speech in Monterey last month.

There appears to be little support among California politicians to actually recriminalize marijuana (making simple possession punishable by a jail sentence), but candidates for attorney general from both parties have gone on record in support of new, tougher "sanctions" against all casual drug users, including those who smoke pot.

Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner, a Democrat, and Lungren, a Republican, both support the sanctions that Bennett has advocated for people convicted of possession and casual use of drugs, including marijuana. Such sanctions could include denying guaranteed student loans and other discretionary government aid or revoking driver's and business licenses.

About to Go National

That hard-line attitude is about to go national as part of President Bush's formal drug policy, which was shaped by Bennett and is scheduled for release Sept. 5. Bush said earlier this month that "the day of tolerance for those who break the law in using drugs is over."

The issue is what to do with people caught with small amounts of marijuana. In the 1970s, 11 states "decriminalized" personal possession--that is, they repealed the laws requiring jail time and a permanent criminal record and made simple possession punishable by a fine, like a traffic ticket.

Every state maintained stiff penalties for those who grew, sold or smuggled marijuana, but prosecuting personal users seemed a waste of time. It certainly did not appear to be worth the very harsh sentences sometimes handed down back then, such as a Virginia man being condemned to 120 years in prison--later commuted to 40 years--after he was caught with a single ounce.

However, such good intentions in most of those pioneering states are coming in for careful re-examination in the light of the late 1980s' more conservative--indeed, more sober--social atmosphere.

Ironically, the very phenomenon primarily responsible for the new marijuana debate--the devastating personal and societal toll of crack cocaine--also is responsible for tempering that debate.

For example, Oregon legislators had to compromise on marijuana earlier this year because the state's crackdown on crack has filled its jails. Lawmakers at first voted to put pot smokers in jail too but reconsidered when warned that doing so would mean letting crack dealers go free. Instead, they settled for a tenfold increase in the fine for marijuana possession.

Beyond Oregon, the trend toward a marijuana reappraisal has already led to tough talk and tougher laws in at least seven other states.

Alaskan activists, for example, are petitioning for an election to overturn a 1975 state Supreme Court ruling that legalized the growing and possession of marijuana for personal use at home. Recriminalization bills were introduced in the Colorado and Maine legislatures, although both bills failed to make it out of committee before the sessions ended. The Nebraska Legislature, however, did agree to reconsider all of its drug policies, including decriminalization.

City Ordinance Preempted

Washington state legislators in May preempted a Seattle city ordinance that decriminalized pot within city limits, then doubled the penalty from $500 to $1,000 and 90 days in jail for possession statewide. North Carolina lawmakers in 1985 reimposed a maximum sentence of 30 days in jail and a $100 fine for possessing less than a half ounce of marijuana.

Such developments mesh well with the emerging Bush Administration agenda.

"We cannot be saying to other countries, 'You have got to get rid of those drugs or eradicate those drugs' until we get rid of them ourselves," Bennett told a convention of conservative state legislators in Monterey in July. "The possession of all illegal drugs, even in small amounts, so-called personal-use amounts, should be punished."

Despite Bennett's exhortations, there seems to be little coordination among the groups advocating stricter laws. For example, North Carolina lawmakers who revived jail time for marijuana smokers were unaware of Maine Gov. John R. McKernan Jr.'s recriminalization stand, and neither knows that the Nebraska Legislature has decided to re-examine that state's liberal drug laws.

However, people who advocate stricter penalties for marijuana possession do so for remarkably similar reasons. They argue that liberal laws send confusing signals to children about the dangers of drug abuse and that current evidence indicates a greater potential for health damage from the super-potent marijuana available today. They also express a general disdain for drugs and the violent crime associated with it.

"Ten years ago, I might have voted for the law," said Smith, the Berkeley activist, referring to the city ordinance that officially makes enforcement of California's state marijuana law the very last priority of the Berkeley Police Department. "But with the present situation, we have to reassess it."

By "it," Smith meant Berkeley's ordinance, although he supports those who would reconsider decriminalization in general. His initiative would make enforcement of the marijuana law a top priority of the Police Department.

"The (state's) marijuana law is sending the wrong message to drug dealers, and it is sending a mixed message to our young people," said Smith, president of the Berkeley Black Property Owners Assn. "It is ridiculous to say to kids, 'Just say no to some drugs.' With this law, we're really giving tacit approval to use marijuana."

Indeed, public support for recriminalization in Oregon and the defeat there of a ballot measure that would have legalized back-yard cultivation of the drug were in part the result of surveys that showed higher-than-average drug use by Oregon teen-agers.

The same concerns have been voiced by other recriminalization backers, such as Maine Public Safety Commissioner John R. Atwood. He and others also contend that laws have not kept pace with radical changes in marijuana potency allowed by plant cloning and other technological advances.

"Marijuana today has far higher levels of THC (tetrahydracannabinol, which produces the drug's euphoric effect) than the marijuana used 15 years ago when these laws were first proposed," Atwood said.

Such facts do not worry decriminalization advocates, like Doug McVay of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, even though he did say his group's efforts have shifted from promoting new liberal laws to protecting existing laws.

McVay said the potency issue is easily defused because even the most potent marijuana has not been demonstrated to be capable of causing death by overdose--an observation, he noted, that cannot be made about alcohol. However, recent medical research does indicate that chronic marijuana smoking may contribute to respiratory illness, fetal development problems and short-term memory loss.

Despite this, there is a surprising concurrence among the decriminalization supporters, including police and prosecutors. They said money spent arresting, prosecuting and jailing marijuana users could be better spent in battling more serious, violent crime, such as crack trafficking.

"Our prisons are overcrowded, and our county jails are overcrowded," said Bernie Glaser, counsel to the Judiciary Committee of the Nebraska Legislature. "The only effect of this (recriminalization) is to cost taxpayers more money. We in Nebraska don't have it, and I don't think anybody else does, either."

Times staff researchers James Cady in Los Angeles and Norma Kaufman in San Francisco contributed to this story.

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