Recently Alaska Attorney General Gregg Renkes announced that the state would ask the Alaska Court of Appeals to rehear the case of David Noy. On Aug. 29 the Court of Appeals overturned Mr. Noy's conviction for possession of marijuana, apparently for his personal use.
The attorney general also directed state district attorneys and the Department of Public Safety to vigorously investigate marijuana possession cases, and turn them over to the U.S. Attorney if they cannot be prosecuted under Alaska law.
This appears to be another misdirected salvo in the "war on drugs." This approach considers drug possession as a crime requiring vigorous law enforcement and prosecution, incarceration, severe penalties, seizure of property and denial of rights. This "war" has resulted in the incarceration of 450,000 Americans for non-violent drug offenses, mostly in local and state jails and prisons. There is no evidence that a significant reduction in illicit drug use has resulted from this emphasis on law enforcement.
It is true that Alaska has a high rate of marijuana use. It is also true that marijuana has short- and long-term adverse effects. It lessens the ability to concentrate, and reduces short- and long-term memory and eye-hand coordination. Marijuana affects motor vehicle operation in much the same way as alcohol. It also causes respiratory disorders similar to tobacco smoking.
There are more effective ways for the Murkowski Administration to reduce marijuana and other illicit drug use. Using a public health in addition to a law enforcement approach is far more effective. Over the last two decades a large amount of research has shown that prevention and treatment of drug abuse is far more cost effective than criminal sanctions for non-violent offenders. This research has also identified which prevention and treatment programs work and which do not. In the face of tight budgets, Alaska cannot afford the cost of arresting, convicting and incarcerating those who possess marijuana for personal use. A growing number of states are revising policies to emphasize prevention and treatment.
Unfortunately, Alaska seems headed in the opposite direction. In addition to the focus on non-violent marijuana offenses, prevention funds were reduced for fiscal year 2004. It is likely that they will be further reduced as part of next year's $250 million reduction.
We may never know what the public cost may be for the apprehension, prosecution and appeal of Mr. Noy for possession of marijuana. The average cost of incarceration is about $47,000 per year. It is likely that this money would have been better spent on prevention or treatment.