Question: Should marijuana be legalized? The Hamilton County Grand Jury thinks so.

Drew Johnson

Editor of the Free Press opinion page

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Drew Johnson, Editor of the Free Press opinion page at the Chattanooga Times Free Press
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In years past, the Hamilton County grand jury's recommendation that the "state legislature should consider legalizing the possession of a small amount of marijuana, which is not packaged for resale" would have set off a firestorm. Now, however, the suggestion has fostered a reasonable discussion.

Clearly, the American public is ready to reconsider marijuana laws, as evidenced by a March poll conducted by the Pew Research Center that found a majority of Americans favor legalizing the use of marijuana. Locally, as the grand jury clearly understands, there is a practical rationale for decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana even for those of us who do not use weed: It would save taxpayers lots of money.

Local courts in Hamilton County dealt with 1,800 drug-possession charges in 2012, and that number is expected to rise this year. A large portion of those cases are for small-scale marijuana possession. Each one of those cases, and any resulting probation or jail time, is a burden on taxpayers.

Since marijuana usage is a victimless crime with few related safety or health concerns, government's ban on marijuana appears unreasonable and arbitrary -- more of a witch hunt than rational policymaking. Claims that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol are supported by a number of studies. In fact, some research indicates that caffeine consumption might pose more health threats than marijuana use. The ban is also totally futile, as the abundance of marijuana -- and marijuana users -- in our area proves.

Decriminalizing marijuana would save tax dollars, create new tax revenue streams, reduce overcrowding in jails, return safe, productive citizens to society, and free up police and courts to focus on more pressing needs.

Ultimately, however, the Tennessee General Assembly should legalize marijuana because self-ownership is fundamental to a free society. It should not be the role of government to tell responsible adults what they can and cannot put in their own bodies, particularly when that action does not violate the rights of others.

Bobbie Patray

President of the Tennessee Eagle Forum

It seems that someone on the Hamilton County grand jury thinks that one way to improve the county's criminal justice system would be to "legalize the possession of a small amount of marijuana which is not packaged for resale."

First of all, I would wonder what is the definition of "a small amount" and then I would wonder how does one determine whether or not the marijuana is "packaged for resale"? These are all very subjective elements left to whom to decide?

Should the state start down this slippery slope to legalize the possession of a drug that is widely believed to be a "gateway" drug? Once this bar is lowered, what will be the next target?

Do we make legal decisions based on convenience or on what is good public policy? I suspect that getting this passed through the Legislature would prove difficult.

And remember, whatever we legalize, we get more of!

Major Neill Franklin

Executive Director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition

As a 34-year veteran police officer, I can tell you that decriminalizing marijuana for personal use would make a tremendous difference to the smooth operation of Tennessee's criminal justice system. There were more than 19,000 arrests for marijuana possession in the state in 2007. That's 19,000 people who have to be booked, charged, given a hearing, perhaps held in jail for a time. This is a tremendous waste of resources, especially when we know the prohibition of marijuana has done little to reduce its use.

If the legislature follows the recommendations of the grand jury, cops and courts will be better able to focus on the serious crimes plaguing our communities and can begin to rebuild the trust of the populace which has been so damaged by prosecuting adults for a consensual "crime."

Morgan Fox

Communications Manager at the Marijuana Policy Project

The Hamilton County grand jury was right to suggest removing criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana, and the legislature should consider doing so as soon as possible. Marijuana is objectively safer than alcohol, both to the consumer and society. Yet, alcohol use is heavily promoted and accepted. Meanwhile, marijuana use is punished with arrest, fines, jail and a criminal record that can make it impossible to find a job or get a student loan. We need to stop squandering limited law enforcement resources going after people who choose to use the safer substance.

If Tennessee decriminalizes small amounts of marijuana, police would be able to stop wasting their valuable time and could concentrate on more serious violent crimes.

Marijuana prohibition, like alcohol prohibition in the early 1900s, has caused far more harm than good and has failed at decreasing the availability or use of the substance. It is time to try a different approach.