NCADD-NJ issues position in support of decriminalization of marijuana possession for personal use. The stance is a carefully considered middle ground between the extremes of arrest and legalization.
It is the position of NCADD-NJ that addiction is a disease and that the most appropriate and effective way to prevent and treat this disease is with an approach that is rooted in public health, not criminal justice. NCADD-NJ further believes that the criminalization of addiction and the collateral sanctions that the criminal justice system attaches to convictions for drug offenses (such as driver’s license suspensions, bars from receiving student loans, exclusions from certain professions and prohibitions against living in public housing) have often made it more difficult for recovering addicts to rejoin mainstream society. For these reasons, NCADD-NJ supports the decriminalization of marijuana possession for personal use in general, and specifically a public health approach that consists of decriminalization, drug education, evaluation and referral to treatment if necessary.
NCADD-NJ’s purpose and mission have a history dating back to the inception of the National Council on Alcoholism (now NCADD) in 1944. Mrs. Marty Mann, the founder of that organization, from the beginning stated that there were three basic NCA concepts:
1. Alcoholism is a disease and the alcoholic is a sick person.
2. The alcoholic can be helped and is worth helping.
3. This is a public health problem and therefore public responsibility.
NCADD-NJ still strongly believes in those three concepts and they inform the mission and the policy positions that the organization takes on various issues. Our core beliefs are captured in a phrase found in many of the agency’s publications: "Addiction is a disease, let's treat it that way."
In recent times issues pertaining to the legalization of medical marijuana, or the general legalization of marijuana, have become increasingly debated. Twenty states plus Washington, DC, have legalized medical marijuana and two states have legalized the sale of marijuana as a recreational substance. This movement towards the legalization of marijuana has made it imperative that NCADD-NJ make clear its position on the criminalization of addictive behaviors so as to not to confuse our support of de-criminalization with that of total legalization.
This movement towards legalization has polarized public opinion, making it important to stake out a position that is neither for the total criminalization of all addiction- related behaviors and activities on one hand, and the total legalization of all illicit drugs on the other. NCADD-NJ does not support the legalization of marijuana or any other illegal drug. NCADD-NJ does, however, support the decriminalization of marijuana possession and an approach to marijuana addiction that is focused on early diagnosis and treatment, not punishment.
The "war on drugs," initiated in 1970s, has resulted in the criminalization of behaviors related to addictive illness. It has gone beyond legal penalties for the sale and distribution of illicit substances. The mere possession and personal use of illicit substances has also been made a criminal offense. In fact, 82% of all drug related arrests in the United States were for simple possession. It is with this latter policy that NCADD-NJ takes issue. The impact on those using marijuana is greater, as 42% of all arrests for possession of illicit substances are for marijuana possession, more than twice that of any other substance, according to FBI crime statistics from 2012.
Recognizing that addiction is a disease and a public health problem, NCADD-NJ cannot support the criminalization of addictive behavior in and of itself. NCADD-NJ believes that the reliance on criminal and collateral sanctions to punish addicted offenders is counterproductive. This does not mean that other crimes related to addictive behavior, or the sale and distribution of illicit substances, should not have criminal sanctions. That said, it must be noted that relatively small amounts of marijuana and other drugs have led to distribution charges. Behaviors limited to individual use should be considered part of the nature of addictive illness and should therefore be met primarily with a public health, as opposed to a criminal justice, response.
There is another reason why NCADD-NJ opposes the criminalization of addicted behavior in and of itself. Central to our mission is promoting recovery from addictive illness. Sentencing laws have meant that individuals continue to be hampered by criminal records and collateral sanctions stemming solely from the possession and use of the substance to which they were addicted. This has had serious consequences for their ability to move forward with recovery from their illness. It has been shown that the ability to be engaged in productive employment is a major factor in successful recovery. Individuals with criminal records based solely on their behavior related to their addiction face major barriers in obtaining employment and therefore have a more difficult time finding stable recovery. It is ironic that the "war on drugs," which was meant to end the drug problem, actually perpetuates it by introducing factors into an individual's life that make recovery less likely, and recidivism and continued use of illicit drugs more likely.
NCADD-NJ supports a policy that would not criminalize addictive behavior in and of itself. However, we do not support the legalization of the sale and distribution of marijuana for recreational purposes. Our position is that simple possession of marijuana should not result in any criminal penalties that could have a lasting negative impact, while civil penalties would act as a deterrent to underage usage. This approach is in line with policy recommendations of Project SAM-Smart Approaches to Marijuana, an organization started by former Congressman Patrick Kennedy and Dr. Kevin A. Sabet. One of the recommendations from Project-SAM regarding marijuana possession laws is "that possession or use of a small amount of marijuana be an offense subject to a health evaluation, resulting (depending on need) in a marijuana education program, a mandatory health screening, referral to treatment, and/or referral to social support systems (e.g., Job training)." NCADD-NJ views the need for education, screening and referral for treatment if deemed clinically appropriate as a necessary part of any public health approach, particularly for underage users.
As stated earlier, the issue of what policies to adopt with regard to the use of marijuana has polarized this country. On one side there are those who vehemently support the war on drugs and if anything call for increased sanctions. On the other are those who support the total legalization of marijuana as a recreational substance. NCADD-NJ does not believe that either position is viable. Although there is mounting evidence that the war on drugs has not been a success, NCADD-NJ's position on the issue is based primarily on its understanding that addiction is an illness and should be treated as a public health issue and that no unnecessary barriers to recovery should be propagated. We believe that eliminating criminal penalties for the possession of marijuana for personal use accomplishes that goal without making it a legal substance with regard to production, distribution and sale. Further, establishing an administrative system which supports and encourages treatment for addictive illness moves the issue more appropriately into the public health arena. We hope that this middle ground approach will be seen as a viable alternative to the current extreme viewpoints. It is a position in keeping with the principles NCADD’s founder articulated 70 years ago.