After combing the co-sponsorship memorandum pages for the PA House and Senate, I've come across some pretty disturbing findings. A few legislators and senators intend to introduce some seriously backward bills. Some have good intent, but, I'll let the co-sponsorship memoranda speak for themselves.
First up, by Representative Dick Hess
(R - Bedford County, Fulton County, Huntingdon County): Doubling Penalties For Possession (PDF)
Reconciling out of control spending by spending more.
Image by Daniel Gallagher of Fletcher Comics
This legislation is a repeat of 2009's HB 668
, and in a nutshell will double penalties for first time possession convictions for both Schedule I and II drugs. So instead of 1 year in jail and $5,000 fine, it would be 2 years and $10,000. For more convictions it rises to 3 years and $25,000! This bill would also increase penalties for possession/distribution/manufacturing of drug paraphernalia to 2 years and $5,000 for the FIRST offense - a second offense brings 3 years and $10,000 in fines. I hope they have a lot of room in jail while bankrupting ordinary nonviolent Pennsylvanians, because you'd have to throw just about every store owner and employee in PA in jail to enforce it - almost anything can be used as paraphernalia, from a spoon to an apple to a fine collectible bong. Neill Franklin
, Executive Director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, said, "They don't seem to be learning from history. The majority of the nation doesn't believe marijuana should [even] be Schedule I."
For Republicans who claim to want to reduce spending and government size, this is a terrible way to go about it. It costs roughly $45,000 per year to house an inmate (and pay for his/her medical treatment), and in a time when we are hemorrhaging money both as a Commonwealth and a Nation, we have a huge debt to foreign nations that's just waiting to get collected, how these people believe we can afford burdening taxpayers even more when we know from decades of experience that it will backfire is incredibly troubling. Edward Pane, President and CEO of alcohol and drug rehabilitation center Serento Gardens in Hazleton, PA, commented that "History has shown that longer drug sentences do not act as a deterrent for drug use. Pennsylvania prisons are already filled with drug users whose minor drug dealing was to support their own habit. This legislation adds harsh penalties for possession; however, it does nothing to address the root of the problem." For Democrats who believe that our Criminal Justice system is completely overburdened and needs an overhaul, this would simply exacerbate the situation. Pane went on to say, "It is estimated that it costs $100,000 to build a single prison cell, to say nothing of the additional cost of operating another prison. Given the huge budgetary crisis in Pennsylvania, this legislation will add substantially to costs and ultimately do nothing to reduce drug use and drug related crime."
I'd rename this bill to the "Slap PA Taxpayers in the Face While Flushing Their Hard Earned Money Act" if I were in charge, because that's what this bill would do.
Next up, by the very same Rep. Dick Hess
: Mobile Drug-Free School Zones Around School Buses Turn Residences into Hotspots. BTW, You're Sentenced To 2 Year Mandatory Minimum (PDF)
This legislation is a repeat of 2009's HB 669
, and will increase the size of "Drug Free School Zones" from 250 feet to 1,000 feet around school buses, playgrounds, and recreation centers. So if a school bus rolls by your house (or you live within 1,000 feet of a playground or rec. center) while you happen to be selling a dime bag (enough for a joint or 2) to a friend, you would be sentenced to 2 years minimum if convicted.
The intent of this bill is laudable, and we are singularly impressed with Rep. Hess' concern for the safety of children, but you can't protect children by banging your head against the wall even harder than you already do. All it does is give you a worse headache and law enforcement more leverage when coercing young people to rat on friends or to go undercover to expose a 'drug ring', and we all know how well that turns out
Both of Rep. Hess's bills come after requests by law enforcement. Franklin, a former Maryland State Police Officer, said, "Surveys of high school students show that illegal drugs are far more accessible than legal ones. The only way to reduce availability [of drugs] to kids is to legalize them, regulate and control them as we do for alcohol and cigarettes."
Also on the agenda is Representative Jennifer Mann's
(D - Lehigh County) Salvia/Spice/K2 Ban (PDF)
, which in 2010 passed the House by a vote of 198-1
, with the only "No" vote coming from Rep. Mark Cohen
(D - Philadelphia).
This particular bill has been talked about quite a bit in the media recently, with good points on both sides of the argument, but it all boils down to one simple fact: if marijuana were legal and regulated, people would generally not feel the need to use artificial varieties in their place - especially ones which pass drug tests, sometimes a significant roadblock in this dire economic time. If a smart public education campaign were to be implemented instead, showing that yes, JWH-018 can be 4 times as potent as THC, people might just pay attention and regulate their use. It seems to have worked for the anti-smoking crowd, more than legislation banning smoking indoors has. Right now all the Spice ban does is encourage people to get as much as they can before it's made illegal, so they can sell it and make even more money on the street than the stores which originally sold it. Meanwhile, manufacturers will simply change the formula to something not covered in the bill, and we're back to square one. Mission failed, return to base, hang head in shame.
In my own district, we'll see legislation by Senator Stewart Greenleaf
(D - Bucks, Montgomery): Send PA Cops to Other States To Fail At Eliminating Drugs There (PDF)
This is a reintroduction of 2010's SB 1194
, and would allow the Governor to both send police into other states which request help, and to request help from other states by joining what's known as the "Interstate Drug Interdiction and Enforcement Compact". If they happen to
or your 92 year old grandmother
during their raid, they would not be civilly liable. This bill will also allow attempt to make our laws as close to other states as possible. The Federal government did this after alcohol prohibition was repealed, forcing states to adopt a minimum drinking age of 21 in exchange for Federal money - a pool that will soon dry up if our government keeps spending this kind of money on throwing nonviolent cannabis consumers in jail for even longer periods of time.
A legal and regulated market would remove the crime from drugs, and this kind of intertwined police state would not be necessary. Franklin commented that, "After four decades of fighting the import of illegal drugs without success, it baffles me that they think this will make a difference. You'd have to be insane. It's just not effective."
Lastly, another bill by Senator Greenleaf: Law Enforcement Drug and Violence Task Force Act (PDF)
A reintroduction of 2009's SB 150
, this will would allow political subdivisions to apply for funding from the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency. The idea is that giving multiple subdivisions authority to apply for funding as a single entity will end up making law enforcement more efficient. The problem is that it's just going to make it more efficient at wasting time and money.
According to their website
, the PCCD "was established in 1978 with the mission to improve the criminal justice system in Pennsylvania." Repeating mistakes and throwing more money down the toilet is certainly not an improvement. This bill repeats the huge mistake of lumping illegal drugs with violence. The violence is not caused by the drugs at all, no more than obesity is caused by forks. The violence is caused when you apply a system of prohibition to highly sought after and easily manufactured commodities, making it risky to sell and therefore highly profitable. People will do anything to protect their money (especially if it's a lot), and when you trade in lawyers for goons with guns, you get unmitigated violence. Just take a look at Mexico
to see how well their drug war is doing. It's in fact doing great if your only concern is how high you can get the death count
.The Diamond in the Rough
So far, the only good impending legislation is the re-introduction of HB 1393
, which would legalize marijuana for medical use and establish a dispensary system while allowing patients and caregivers to grow their own medicine. The cosponsor memorandum have not gone out yet, but it's only a matter of time at this point. Last year, HB 1393 got 2 hearings in the Health and Human Services Committee, a mammoth 26 member committee. Law enforcement, patients with conditions/diseases that cannabis can mitigate, physicians, religious leaders, and advocates from numerous organizations testified in favor of passing the bill
, but no vote was ever scheduled in its year and a half. Luckily, the HHS committee is being split into two separate ones, and the sponsor of HB1393, Rep. Mark Cohen
, is now the Minority Chairman of the Human Services Committee. This bodes well if in fact the bill gets assigned there.
The Senate version, SB 1350
, was introduced in May of 2010, but never scheduled for a hearing nor a vote. It is slated to be reintroduced in the winter of 2011.Lots of Bad Ideas Don't Make a Good One
, 17,411 adults were arrested for marijuana possession in Pennsylvania, with 4,582 arrested for sales or manufacturing. PA's population is 12.7 million people
. It's estimated
that nationwide about 8.35% of the population has used marijuana in the last year and about 33.83% have used it in their lifetime. In PA, that translates to about 375,486 Pennsylvanians who have used marijuana in the last year; about 4,297,107 who've used it in their lifetime. That means that for every person arrested for marijuana in the last year, about 22 marijuana users or dealers were not; for lifetime users that ratio soars to 1:247! Quite the hallmark of a failed policy. The question is, how much would we be spending per year if in fact we succeeded in arresting all marijuana offenders? The answer is not pretty, but given the lack of statistics on sentencing, it's hard to estimate.
All these bills will do is make selling drugs more profitable, but none of these bills will offer any control whatsoever over who sells it to whom, where, or why. Drug sales and manufacturing are completely out of government control, and it's by their own choice
. Franklin had this to say about the pending legislation: "At a time in our Nation's history when we're looking at fixing the inequalities that exist between our drug laws and reality, it looks like the state of Pennsylvania is about to take a huge step backwards." What's needed is to legalize marijuana across the board while replacing the Prohibition system with a system that regulates sales in a manner similar to alcohol. Legislation can specify that it can't be sold within 500 feet of a school, or in schools, or to people under 21, and that's OK if it can be sold elsewhere to adults. That would actually prevent adolescents from getting it because dealers would have licensed businesses rather than streetcorners. Former criminals would suddenly be engaged in a highly competitive, high demand, legal market with no tolerance for the sort of behavior displayed in an illegal market. That would save our government millions of dollars per year from no longer arresting and incarcerating people guilty of cannabis possession, distribution, or manufacture; and could potentially raise millions more in sales tax.
Right now the exact details aren't important, the nature of the system is - the nature of prohibition is failure, while the nature of legalization and regulation is success, for everyone involved.