- Berkshire District Attorney's Office
Media Contact for Let states decide marijuana policies
Dennis Yusko, Communications Director
By Andrea Harrington
Berkshire District Attorney
Pittsfield — I recently traveled to Portugal to study its decriminalization of drug use with a team of prosecutors that are remaking marijuana policies at home. The eye-opening journey affirmed my view that drug use should be treated as a public health concern. It also inspired me to join Senator Elizabeth Warren and a bipartisan group of lawmakers in urging President Trump to sign the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States (STATES Act).
On our learning trip, we met with Portuguese political leaders, public health practitioners and police officers that overhauled the country’s drug policies starting in 2001. In decriminalizing certain substances, Portugal reduced the stigma related to drug use and started bringing harm reduction services, such as a mobile methadone van, to addicts. It resulted in dramatically reduced overdose deaths and decreases in problematic drug use and incarceration.
Nearly 20 U.S. prosecutors went, including Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins, and district attorneys from Philadelphia, St. Louis, Durham County, N.C. and Denver. The group is part of a new breed of American prosecutors that are reforming the criminal justice system. Many are working to end marijuana prosecutions and vacate low-level possession charges to reduce mass incarceration. The effort is part of a larger movement in which states across the U.S. are abandoning the aggressive marijuana enforcement policies from the past in favor of sensible approaches that promote public safety and better reflect public opinion.
In recent years, public support for marijuana policy reform has surged in red and blue states. Last year, Michigan, Missouri, Oklahoma, Utah and Vermont expanded legal access to marijuana. Thirty-three states and the District of Columbia have legalized or decriminalized recreational or medical marijuana, while 47 states permit marijuana or marijuana-based products. Citizens in Massachusetts voted to legalize medical marijuana in 2012 and recreational marijuana for adults in 2016. Some of the first dispensaries on the east coast opened this year in Berkshire County. We in the District Attorney’s Office adopted state laws to promote the safe use of cannabis for those 21 and older, much like that with alcohol and tobacco, and ensured no one was jailed on possession charges.
But the Department of Justice’s announcement last year that it would cease guiding states on cannabis reform and return to the outdated prosecution of of marijuana has undermined the will of voters and caused vast uncertainty. The public does not want to return to the dark days of the failed War on Drugs, which cost an estimated $1 trillion, devastated countless families, disproportionately targeted African-Americans and squandered police resources.
That’s why Congress and President Trump should pass the STATES Act recently reintroduced by Senators Warren and Cory Gardner, and representatives from each party in the House. By amending parts of the Controlled Substances Act, the legislation prevents the federal government from interfering in marijuana laws set by states and territories, and removes the threat of federal prosecution.
Some federal laws, such as the age limit on recreational usage, will still apply. I appreciate the fact that the bill directs the Government Accountability Office to study the effects of legalization on traffic safety. The states’ rights legislation encourages commerce and more efficient tax collections by allowing banks to provide services to state-licensed cannabis businesses. The bill is backed by progressive groups, but also the American Bankers Association, Americans for Prosperity and Americans for Tax Reform.
States are laboratories of democracy, and nearly every state in the union recognizes the therapeutic effect of cannabis and cannabinoids. But while scientists study cannabis for health benefits, the U.S. government still classifies the plant as a Schedule 1 drug, placing it in the same category as heroin. While I believe that there are legitimate concerns regarding the legalization of marijuana, the federal government’s ill-informed definition is wrong and only serves to rationalize criminalization.
Americans don’t want to return to criminalizing cannabis and the racist police practice of “stop and frisk.” According to the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission, African-Americans in Boston accounted for 66 percent of marijuana possession arrests from 2000 through 2018, while making up 22 percent of the city’s population. That kind of enforcement only erodes public trust in the criminal justice system.
The STATES Act strengthens public safety by freeing up law enforcement resources to focus on serious crime. Arresting and incarcerating adults for possessing small amounts of marijuana is expensive and accomplishes nothing to reduce violence. In 2017, it cost $45,549 to $82,116 to jail an inmate for a year in a Massachusetts correctional facility, according to the Department of Correction. That is money that would be better spent on apprehending violent criminals and removing deadly drugs like fentanyl off the street.
The STATES Act is a tremendous opportunity for our national leaders to work together and serve the people. We hope they join Senator Warren in seizing this landmark opportunity.