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Legislating from the hip Marijuana bill: Proposal is a grandstand that would clog jails with non-violent offenders.


SEN. LARRY E. HAINES' marijuana bill, which has passed the state Senate, is more of what we have come to expect from the Republican Carroll County lawmaker: legislating from the hip. He takes a complex problem and offers a simple-minded answer that would cause more difficulties than it solves.

At a time of general consensus that costly jail space should be reserved for dangerous criminals, Mr. Haines is going in the opposite direction. He wants to fill up more cells with non-violent drug users.

His bill would increase penalties for possession of marijuana -- not dealing, but possession. He wants judges to be able to lock up second-time offenders for four years instead of one. The current maximum one-year sentence for first-time possessors would stay the same, but the maximum first-time fine would increase from $1,000 to $10,000.

Mr. Haines found some support for this bill because it is an easy piece of legislation to get behind. It looks tough on crime, and it plays well to constituents worried about drug use in their schools and neighborhoods.

But what will it accomplish, other than clogging already overcrowded detention centers? Raising fines for first-time offenders may deter some from trying pot. But experience proves that the threat of stiffer jail terms is less effective than education when it comes to discouraging experimental users, particularly young people. Harsher prison sentences for small-fry pot smokers amount to little more than symbolic gestures of Maryland's disapproval of drug use, a message existing laws against marijuana and other drugs already send.

Supporters of the Haines bill accuse opponents of encouraging drug legalization. That is a ridiculous leap. Even most liberal politicians recognize that drug use, including marijuana use, is not a victimless crime but contributes significantly to domestic violence, street violence, property crime, child abuse and traffic deaths. Marylanders and their representatives have barely begun the debate that must accompany any serious consideration of decriminalization. We must focus our limited resources on crimes more serious than marijuana possession. That's where our priorities -- and our energy -- ought to be placed.

Pub Date: 2/14/97

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