To law enforcement, debates don't matter: Pot is still illegal
Published: August 18, 2012
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ST. THOMAS - As the territory waded this week into a politically charged discussion about whether medical marijuana and industrial hemp should be legal, top law enforcement officials responded with a reminder: weed is still against the law.
You would not necessarily know that from listening to some of the testimony offered Monday and Tuesday in the V.I. Legislature.
At least three St. Thomas residents openly attested to buying and smoking marijuana to relieve a host of medical ailments, from neurological injuries to psychiatric conditions. Some said they feared arrest and prosecution for the steps they take to treat their illnesses. Others criticized police and prosecutors for allowing simple possession cases to clog up the legal system.
V.I. Attorney General Vincent Frazer rebuffed that characterization and said prosecutors have limited resources and plenty of more serious cases to deal with.
"We're not looking for more work," he said.
Frazer said simple possession cases can "become annoying" for police officers and the costs to taxpayers typically far exceed whatever fines are levied in association with the crime. He described his approach to prosecuting simple possession cases as a balancing act.
"If we're out there arresting every single person with a joint, it will just take away resources from other cases," he said. "You have to balance it. It is against the law, and we have to carry out our duty as resources permit."
Frazer described cases in which people "just for spite" will not hide the fact that they are smoking a joint from police officers and said other times people have admitted to police that "selling weed is what they do."
St. Thomas-St. John Police Chief Darren Foy differentiated between incidents in which officers actually witness a crime and the testimony before the Senate in which several individuals admitted to buying and using the drug.
"It don't put us in no predicament," Foy said. "If we catch them buying illegal drugs, we'll arrest them. But just because you say you do something doesn't mean you actually do it. There's a difference."
Frazer said he was not troubled by the ease with which some of the speakers said they could buy marijuana.
"I'm not troubled by it because it's a fact I know of and am aware of," he said. "Marijuana is the primary drug of choice in the territory. I know it's all over the place. It's very pervasive in our community."
He said that watching the Senate testimony, he was struck by the disparity between how marijuana can affect different individuals.
"One of the stark realities I saw at those hearings was we saw people who tell us they use it for medicinal purposes and mostly they are functional individuals," Frazer said. "But there is another group that has been using marijuana for a long time, and it has destroyed their lives."
Frazer said the potential downside is only part of the reason he does not support either of the referendum questions proposed by Sen. Terrence Nelson about whether to legalize medical marijuana and industrial hemp. Frazer said he would have to see better numbers on the economic impact of industrial hemp before supporting such a measure and that it would be confusing to change the law to legalize it before any major manufacturers were actually proposing to come to the territory to process hemp.
He also pointed to the possibility of federal pushback if the territory ultimately implements a medical marijuana program.
Yet, Frazer said he was open to - and is in the process of considering - changes to the territory's simple possession laws that would impose different penalties, such as fines or community service instead of incarceration.
Frazer was careful to distinguish between his input on any potential legislation and the two proposals currently before the Senate, which would place the following two questions before voters in November:
- Are you in favor of the Legislature enacting legislation that allows for the licensing and regulation of medicinal marijuana patients, care-givers, cultivators and distribution centers?
- Are you in favor of promoting the production, processing, manufacture and distribution of industrial hemp in the Virgin Islands?
If voters answer those questions in the affirmative, the Senate would have to pass legislation and the governor would have to sign it before either proposal becomes legal.
V.I. Police Commissioner Henry White Jr. said he did not want to comment on the issue while it is before the Legislature. He did say the Police Department is in the process of compiling statistics on marijuana-related arrests to provide to the Senate if necessary.
Foy also ceded to the law - and the Legislature - on questions raised during testimony about whether marijuana should be decriminalized across the board.
"All I know is marijuana is illegal, and police will continue to enforce the laws," Foy said. "It's plain and simple: It's a law on the books, you understand? The Senate, they're the ones who write the laws, and if they feel like it needs to change, then they can change it."
- Contact reporter Lou Mattei at 714-9124 or email email@example.com.