As a former undercover narcotics detective with the New Jersey State Police, I might be the last person you'd expect to see supporting a new marijuana decriminalization bill in the state Assembly. But my experience on the front lines of the so-called "war on drugs" is exactly what led me to support fundamental changes to failed prohibition policies.
And I am not alone in this belief. Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), a nonprofit education organization of 50,000 police officers, judges, prosecutors and others also understands that prohibiting marijuana doesn't prevent people from using the drug but it does create a number of additional problems.
Keeping marijuana illegal afflicts thousands of people every year with criminal records they don't deserve. Less obvious but of concern to users and non-users alike, is that the time police spend arresting people for marijuana distracts from the time they could be using to prevent or at least investigate violent crimes.
In the United States, our overburdened police departments are unable to solve four of 10 murders, six of 10 rapes, seven of 10 robberies and nine of 10 burglaries. Yet each year our prohibition laws result in our police taking time out to make more than 800,000 arrests for marijuana offenses. The policy of prohibition therefore constitutes a grave threat to public safety.
Thankfully, an increasing number of lawmakers are taking a serious look at changing the state's marijuana policies. State Assemblymen Reed Gusciora, D-Mercer, and Michael Patrick Carroll, R-Morris, along with 15 additional co-sponsors, introduced a bill this month that would remove criminal penalties for adults possessing fewer than 15 grams of marijuana.
Besides allowing police officers to focus on more important things, this bill would free up space in our overcrowded jails and save taxpayer dollars that could instead be used to fund schools, roads and health care.
Harvard University economist Jeffrey Miron says New Jersey spends $183 million enforcing its marijuana prohibition laws every year. In 2009, a good portion of that money was spent arresting more than 22,000 people in New Jersey for possessing small amounts of marijuana.
The bipartisan support for the decriminalization bill is encouraging, but its passage will hardly be a slam-dunk. Consider what has happened with the state's medical marijuana policy.
In late 2010 Gov. Jon Corzine signed a popular medical marijuana bill into law. In his campaign to succeed Corzine, current Gov. Chris Christie expressed support for medical marijuana "in concept."
That concept appears to embody the goal that medical marijuana will never be available in the Garden State. The Christie administration continues to erect roadblocks to the law's implementation. Christie wants federal assurance that medical marijuana workers would be immune from federal prosecution - a guarantee everyone knows Washington would never make.
Christie's effort to forestall medical marijuana flies in the face of decades of law-enforcement experience and scientific research.
In my 26 years with the New Jersey State Police, I worked with talented people who fought the drug war courageously. We arrested many people for marijuana and seized enough of the stuff to fill warehouses. But the fatal flaw to prohibition is that no level of law enforcement skill, commitment and resources - or increased arrest numbers - can ever end an activity that is popular and extremely profitable.
When former law enforcers are calling for changes to the marijuana laws, there's simply no excuse for politicians to continue the status quo.
While some might be afraid of the newness of change, no one can claim what we've been doing is working. Four out of 10 Americans - some 100 million people - admit to having used marijuana.
But marijuana prohibition has worked exceptionally well for one sector: the gangs and cartels that control its currently illegal distribution and profits. The Mexican drug cartels reportedly make up to 70 percent of their profits from marijuana sales alone, and the Justice Department says that they have already set up shop in 230 U.S. cities.
Legalized regulation of marijuana would deal a stronger blow to these criminal syndicates than law enforcement crackdowns ever have or will.
While decriminalizing possession of marijuana in New Jersey won't stop the black market - only legalized regulation can do that - it is still a big step toward correcting the misguided policy of prohibition.
New Jersey should join the 14 other states that have chosen to impose a fine instead of jail time for marijuana possession.
Jack Cole is a retired New Jersey State Police narcotics detective. He is co-founder and board chairman of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. The group's website is www.CopsSayLegalizeDrugs.com.