Interesting column in the Lincoln Journal Star this morning by Cindy Lange-Kubick, advocating that Nebraska follow our neighbor to the west, Colorado, in completely legalizing the possession of marijuana for personal use, and it's sale.
One of the arguments often put forth for such proposals is to reduce the impact of arrests for small amounts on pot on criminal justice resources: police, prosecutors, courts, and corrections. The columnist actually contacted me and asked for my estimate of what those costs are in Lincoln. I suppose I'm qualified as anyone to proffer such a guess, and I estimated about $150,000 per year for the roughly 1,500 tickets LPD issues for possession of less than one ounce of marijuana--$100 per case.
My estimate was based on the time involved, which I pegged at about 20 minutes. That may not sound like much, but the vast majority of marijuana tickets are secondary to some other charge. You arrest a speeder who has an outstanding warrant from a prior traffic ticket, and find a doobie in his jacket, or a shoplifter with a stash in her purse, or a drunk driver with a baggie in his pants pocket. As a result, the additional time involved is short. Very few of these cases go to trial a fact I confirmed with a call to our chief City prosecutor.
The reason the price of pot enforcement in Lincoln is low is simply this: Nebraska decriminalized the possession of small amounts of pot fully 35 years ago, turning the offense into a civil infraction. In our State, a first offense for possession of less than an ounce is an infraction punishable only by a fine, not to exceed $300. That's less serious than many traffic tickets. It may be hard for people to believe, but up until legalization in Colorado, Nebraska had the most liberal law in the land for the possession of small amounts of marijuana.
You can make all sorts of arguments for legalization of small amounts of pot for personal use, but in Nebraska, I don't think you can make a convincing argument that it will significantly reduce law enforcement expenditures. In fact, I worry that the opposite is true. If you drop infraction-level offense entirely, and make the sale of marijuana legal, I suspect that we will see a whole slew of new laws to regulate the enterprise.
It will continue to be illegal to drive under the influence of marijuana, and we'll add such things as procuring pot for minors, smoking pot in parks, selling pot without a license, selling pot without remitting the requisite taxes, smoking pot indoors other than private residences, minor in possession of pot, furnishing pot to an intoxicated person, offering for sale brownies in excess of the allowable level of THC, selling pot within the R1 zoning districts, and so forth--the same kinds of laws that exist today to regulate alcohol and cigarettes. We will then expect the constables to enforce this forest of regulations--just as we do with alcohol and tobacco.
Do what you will, but don't bank on saving the time and effort of law enforcement officers as the rationale, if the proposition is to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use. We already did that during the era of cassette tapes and polyester leisure suits.