Marijuana Penalties Vary Widely

Marijuana Penalties Vary Widely
Posted by CN Staff on March 31, 2008 at 05:17:23 PT
By Lauren R. Dorgan, Monitor Staff
Source: Concord Monitor
New Hampshire -- In Concord, a first-time marijuana offender can usually strike a deal with prosecutors by entering an educational diversion program to avoid a criminal record. In Lebanon, "what you get there is a $500 fine and good luck to you," as one public defender puts it. The State House debate on a bill that would decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana has centered on young people and what convictions mean for their college prospects. The bill cleared the House earlier this month and now heads to the Senate, where support is doubtful.
Gov. John Lynch said he would veto the bill, saying it sends the "wrong message" to young people. But supporters say that marijuana convictions jeopardize students' eligibility for federal scholarships and student loans, a penalty that they say is excessive and life-altering. The reality is more complicated and reflects efforts by local and federal authorities to give first-time drug offenders a second chance. Moreover, in New Hampshire, the outcome for a first-time drug offender in court often depends on geography. When high-schoolers or college students take a pencil to the federal financial aid form known as the FAFSA, they will find a less strict drug policy than their older siblings likely saw. Because of changes enacted last year, students will lose eligibility for a set period of time only if they were in school and getting federal aid at the time they committed the offense. And students can win back their eligibility by entering an approved drug rehab program. Congress has debated loosening restrictions further. Still, under current law, a student convicted while receiving scholarships is still required to "pay back all aid he or she received after the student's conviction." Under New Hampshire law, marijuana possession is a misdemeanor punishable by a maximum $2,000 fine and up to a year in jail. The bill that recently passed the House would cut that to a violation and make the top penalty a $200 fine. Across the state, there are prosecutors and judges who make a practice of giving first offenders a lesser penalty - with the hook that the person must enter an educational treatment program. "We have the ability within the law right now to do precisely what they are attempting to do - to reduce it to a violation-level offense if, in fact, that is appropriate," said Concord District Court Judge Gerard Boyle. "But it's not something that always happens." Boyle said he sees about a dozen such cases a week and estimates that the typical first offender is between 17 and 24 years old. Public defenders interviewed for this story said that in drug cases, their clients often worry about eligibility for public housing, for jobs, and for travel to Canada. Chris Keating, who oversees the public defender program, said that of the "hundreds and hundreds" of marijuana cases his office sees, many clients are worried about their future educational prospects. "Our clients are poor but they don't want to be poor forever," he said. "And I think we all know one of the best ways to not be poor forever is to go to college." Defense attorney George Ostler practices with a firm that handles between 10 and 15 marijuana cases a year for students at Dartmouth and at the University of Vermont. In Vermont, first-time drug offenders are typically sent to a statewide diversion program. In New Hampshire, Ostler said, it's "not uncommon" for a prosecutor to reduce the charge on a first offense, but there's no organized diversion program in Grafton County, where he often practices. "A lot of times it's important to be represented by counsel that knows what's going on," he said. In Merrimack County, there is a diversion program - the FAST program, for First-time Alcohol and Substance Treatment, pioneered by County Attorney Dan St. Hilaire. In Hillsborough County, prosecutors vary their approach from court to court. "On any given day, you have a prosecutor who does what the FAST program does, but without any consistency, to be honest with you," said Hillsborough County Attorney Marguerite Wageling, who hopes to set up a program like FAST in her county this year. "It's catch as catch can." Belknap County is in a similar position. County Attorney Jim Carroll says sentence reduction for first-time offenders is widely practiced, as a sort of "unspoken" rule. "When I was a prosecutor I did it," said Carroll, the former city prosecutor in Laconia. "When I was a defense attorney I lobbied for it, and I generally was successful." College students also get help from their administrations. Plymouth State University has built a relationship with the local district court. Any student caught on a first-time marijuana or alcohol offense can cut his or her criminal charges if he or she attends an on-campus diversion program, said Dean of Students Tim Keefe. Last year, 65 students attended the program. School administrators review Plymouth's arrest reports weekly. "If you're arrested in town, we see it and deal with it institutionally," Keefe said. "My experience has been that students are certainly in pretty good numbers arrested for this behavior when they're caught. . . . But the system is focused on 'All right, you made a mistake. Can you learn from this?' " Keefe said he worries that changing the law will mean students would lose a chance to learn from their mistakes. "From a court's perspective, we may lose a teachable moment," he said. "I'm a little apprehensive that it may become 'Oh well, this isn't a big deal.' " Note: Proposed law would decriminalize drug.Source: Concord Monitor (NH)Author: Lauren R. Dorgan, Monitor StaffPublished: March 31, 2008Copyright: 2008 Monitor Publishing CompanyContact: letters cmonitor.comWebsite: Related Articles & Web Site:NH Common Sense Right To Reduce Marijuana Penalties Vote Draws Fire Threatens Veto To Decriminalize Pot
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Comment #6 posted by FoM on April 02, 2008 at 16:36:14 PT
We have a maximum of a $100 fine for anything under 100 grams. That seems fair to me.
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Comment #5 posted by rchandar on April 02, 2008 at 16:19:14 PT:
PS--New Hampshire Laws
&NH? Somewhere, Trey Anastasio is turning over in his grave, and the poor bastard isn't even dead yet.
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Comment #4 posted by rchandar on April 02, 2008 at 16:15:42 PT:
$2000??? Are these people even SANE????
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Comment #3 posted by rchandar on April 02, 2008 at 08:34:56 PT:
Yes, the penalties in some states are totally ridiculous--they stand as model examples of unbelievable injustice and constitute a daily horror for some.Lessee. Tennessee--"The Volunteer State" less than 1/2 oz of MJ=2 years jail + $2000 fine.Sonsofb #ches probably deserve for no one to come to their state. Get caught with a lame schwag joint, go to jail for 2 years, pay an exorbitant fine.Alabama--probably the most racist state in the Union. Same deal=2 years jail+ $2000 fine.I'm not sure why there isn't more outrage about the penalties on the books. It is just unacceptable to send people to jail for two years just because they smoked pot. It goes unnoticed. I just hope these laws get changed. Otherwise I can't see what attracts people to places like these.--rchandar
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Comment #2 posted by LaGuardia on March 31, 2008 at 06:26:24 PT
Great Article on How Pot Prohibition Was Passed
"it sends the 'wrong message' to young people."""From a court's perspective, we may lose a teachable moment,' [Keefe] said. "'I'm a little apprehensive that it may become 'Oh well, this isn't a big deal.'' "This is preaching to the choir, but "sending the wrong message" and "teachable moments" are not adequate reasons for criminal penalties. They would be funny if it the consequences of this senseless criminalization of a relatively harmless plant were not so tragic, in and of itself. As the Schafer Commission concluded over 35 years ago, the legal harms associated with cannabis outweigh the harm from the plant itself.And, the reasons for making it illegal in the first place were not good ones at all; it was mostly because of ignorance.THE ARTICLE ON HOW POT PROHIBITION WAS PASSED:This weekend I tracked down and read an extremely interesting law review article that exhaustively researched the process by which cannabis became illegal under both state and federal law (it was mentioned in passing in one of the articles on this site, so I decided to read it).It was published in the October 1970 issue of the Virginia Law Review; here is the citation if any one wants to read it themselves ; I strongly recommend checking it out (you would likely need to have access to Westlaw, Lexis, HeinOnline, or go to a law library; I think that such a trip would be worth it): Richard J. Bonnie & Charles H. Whitebread, II, "The Forbidden Fruit and the Tree of Knowledge: An Inquiry into the Legal History of American Marijuana Prohibition," 56 Va. L. Rev. 973 (1970) [that's volume 56, page 973].While I knew from some anti-prohibition literature and the movie "Grass" that the state laws outlawing cannabis and the federal Marihuana Tax Stamp Act of 1937 were based on ignorance and racist sentiments against Latinos and Blacks, I was shocked by just how little debate there was on the subject, as well as the fact that there was virtually no scientific study of cannabis at all (and U.S. military studies from the Panama Canal Zone that concluded that cannabis was not harmful were ignored, as was a report by the British government from the 1890s that reached the same conclusion). I already knew that, in passing the anti-marijuana laws, the states and the federal government relied on the representations of the Federal Bureau of Narcotic's (predecessor of the DEA) Commissioner, Harry J. Anslinger, that marijuana causes criminal insanity, rape, murder, miscegenation, and poverty. And I also knew that it got swept up in moralistic sentiments from the temperance era. But seeing all of the evidence laid out in a 230 page article really made that hit home. Basically it came to down to this:There was no marijuana/cannabis problem because hardly anyone used it except for poor minorities in some areas -- the legislators and Congressmen had not heard of it; the middle-class public did not know about it or clamor for making it illegal; the press barely reported it at all because they must have thought that cannabis prohibition laws were not newsworthy -- but the state legislatures and later Congress made it illegal because they assumed that it was an addictive narcotic and they feared that people would "turn to" cannabis as an alternative to drugs that the legislators and Congress were making illegal in the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s, such as heroin and cocaine.The article starts off with a quote from the floor debate in Congress on the Marijuana Tax Stamp Act of 1937:"Mr. Snell: What is the bill?Mr. Rayburn: It has something to do with something called Marihuana. I believe that it is a narcotic of some kind."That pretty much sums up the deliberative process that made cannabis illegal at both the state and the federal level: They just lumped it in with the other drugs and assumed that it had to be made illegal as a preemptive measure before the "marijuana menace" took hold of their children and before the users of other drugs turned to it as an alternative. Marijuana was the "preemptive war" of the War on Drugs; the pharmacological Iraq, if you will.I should add that Mr. Snell objected to the bill being passed AT NIGHT without any real debate, and that Mr. Rayburn (after whom a Congressional office building in named) asked if the American Medical Association supported the bill, and another Congressman, Mr. Vinson, lied and said that the AMA did support it when the AMA witness in the committee that had hearings on the bill had opposed it.  Then they voted on it, and it passed without dissent. So, the legislative process being "broken" is not new phenomenon by any means.And, of course, it was Federal Bureau of Narcotics (now DEA) propaganda that Congress and the states relied on as a basis for the supposed dangers of cannabis, and ever since the public has been indoctrinated with anti-cannabis propaganda designed to maintain the status quo (and the bureaucratic budgets). So public opinion was neutral on marijuana before it was made illegal, and the public has been indoctrinated that it is evil ever sense by government propaganda. No wonder DEA is so against any reforms of the marijuana laws; THEY STARTED MARIJUANA PROHIBITION IN THE FIRST PLACE! Perhaps they are afraid that, without marijuana prohibition to justify their existence, they will get merged with the FBI. 85 % of U.S. drug users only use pot, after all. So much for the gateway theory; where it valid, all of us would have to be addicted to heroin or meth. Oh, and according to the article, in 1937, Anslinger DENIED that there was a gateway theory in Congressional testimony! When a Congressman asked him if marijuana users progressed to heroin and cocaine he said: "No." In closing, those of you who are lawyers may have been taught by one of the authors of the Virginia Law Review article, Prof. Charlie Whitebread, in the Bar/Bri bar review course (I had him and I think that he teaches almost everyone "multi-state criminal law"). He is a very funny guy but I would have shook his hand had I known that he wrote this article. He did not talk about this issue, but one of the other professors spend 10 minutes talking about how there is no good reason for criminalizing cannabis. I knew that he was right, but I did not know HOW right he was until I read the article by Profs. Whitebread and Bonnie.
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Comment #1 posted by Sam Adams on March 31, 2008 at 05:31:09 PT
This isn't a big deal
The people that advance this argument (sending the right message to the youth) are the most sinister to me.They think having a typical police officer arrest some college kids is going to teach them than cannabis is "a big deal"?  The kids have already smoked the cannabis, they know exactly what it is. They think for themselves - remember than ancient and trusted human ability of self-determination and free choice? You know, from before we had this wonderful government utopia we know live in, where the govt takes half of everything you earn? The govt. that bombs innocent brown people into oblivion?No, kids will get arrested and learn this - the government in this country is totally hypocritical and corrupt to the point of being criminal.  Don't try to push back against it, you'll get crushed. Learn to hide certain things in your life, even if you're not doing anything wrong. Cops are mean thugs out to punish smarter college kids for being successful in high school and later in life.THAT is the message being sent. Do we like it?
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