Weed Watch

Marijuana busts clog the justice system, and UT students want to "equalize" pot and alcohol penalties

According to a new study in the Harm Reduction Journal, the war on drugs has increasingly focused on arrests for low-level marijuana offenses. Marijuana arrests account for 82% of the increase in drug arrests from 1990 to 2002; in 2002 alone, 88% of the nearly 700,000 marijuana arrests nationwide were for simple possession. Indeed, researchers with the Sentencing Project in Washington, D.C., report that marijuana arrests increased by 113% over the 12-year period, while arrests related to all other drug offenses increased by just 10%. In total, the report concludes that taxpayers spend nearly $4 billion per year arresting pot smokers. "The results of this study suggest that law enforcement resources are not being effectively allocated to offenses which are most costly to society," conclude the authors. (To read an earlier version of the report, go to www.sentencingproject.org/pdfs/waronmarijuana.pdf.)

In other pot news, the group responsible for "equalizing" penalties associated with pot and alcohol use at the University of Colorado and with bringing a successful pot decriminalization measure to Denver voters in November has come to Texas to do a little equalizing at UT. The nonprofit group Safer Alternative for Enjoyable Recreation has spawned a Texas branch (Texas SAFER) and is now taking on UT policy that proscribes far harsher penalties – among them suspension – for students caught smoking pot than for students caught using alcohol. Last week Texas SAFER announced that a referendum initiative seeking to equalize pot and alcohol penalties will appear on the upcoming student elections ballot. On Feb. 28 and March 1, students will be asked whether "university-imposed penalties for the use and possession of marijuana [should] be no greater than the penalties currently imposed … for the use and possession of alcohol on campus."

The SAFER movement – which began in the wake of two alcohol-related deaths at the University of Colorado, and began at UT in response to the December alcohol overdose death of freshman Phanta "Jack" Phoummarath – is an educational campaign designed to highlight the relative risks associated with drugs and alcohol – by far, the group argues, alcohol is more harmful. No one has ever died from a marijuana overdose, they point out, while alcohol is associated not only with overdose deaths but also with a wide variety of crime, including domestic abuse and sexual assault. "If our elected officials in Texas want to impose harsh penalties for the use of marijuana, that is their decision," says Judie Niskala, SAFER Texas' UT coordinator. "But the university does not have to pile on." (For more on SAFER, go to www.saferchoice.org.)

And, finally, a new documentary on the legalization of medical marijuana is coming to the downtown Alamo Drafthouse theatre for two screenings the next two Wednesdays, March 1 at 7pm, and March 8 at 9:45pm. Filmmaker Jed Riffe's Waiting to Inhale paints a picture of the struggle to legalize medi-pot – a world where, too often, seriously ill patients become criminals solely because they use pot – most often on a doctor's recommendation – to control and alleviate pain and other symptoms associated with their illness. Riffe offers viewers a comprehensive look into the world of pot clubs, government sanctioned pot growers, and the future of the medi-pot movement. For more information on the movie, see www.jedriffefilms.com/waiting.htm.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

marijuana, Weed Watch, Jed Riffe, Waiting to Inhale, medical marijuana, medi-pot, medi-mari, SAFER, UT, Phanta Jack Phoummarath, Judie Niskala, Harm Reduction Journal, Sentencing Project

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