Local Opinion: Arizona harsh juvenile marijuana laws make a speedy school to prison pipeline
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Local Opinion: Arizona harsh juvenile marijuana laws make a speedy school to prison pipeline

The following column is the opinion and analysis of the writer.

Arizona is currently the only state in America where possession of a small amount of marijuana is a felony offense. Here in Pima County, the County Attorney often charges juvenile offenders with felony marijuana possession, and will then refuse to reduce the charge to a misdemeanor. This means our children in Pima County are becoming felons for possessing a small amount of marijuana.

Arizona also has a “three strikes” law for juveniles. A 15-year-old who has had two prior felony dispositions (the juvenile court equivalent of sentencing) will be automatically charged as an adult for a third felony offense. The combination of the felony possession of marijuana and three strikes laws creates a recipe for disaster that results in a speedy school-to-prison pipeline here in Arizona.

The three strikes law passed in Arizona in 1997 as part of a wave of laws to deal with the coming of the so-called “super predator.” This was the notion popular in the ’90s that there was a coming juvenile crime wave and “hordes upon hordes of depraved teenagers resorting to unspeakable brutality, not tethered by conscience” would be unleashed on society. However, the super predators and juvenile crime wave never came, and juvenile crime has subsequently sharply declined.

The draconian laws like the juvenile three strikes that were passed to protect from the mythical super predators remain in full force and effect today. Many legislators are too concerned about being perceived as “tough on crime” so they refuse to change and correct the super predator era laws to reflect the reality of the decline in juvenile crime. Unfortunately, our children are paying the price for this legislative cowardice.

Arizona is also far behind the curve of other states in our marijuana laws. While other states are updating their marijuana laws to reflect common sense realities, Arizona maintains some of the harshest marijuana laws in the country. Eleven states and Washington D.C. have legalized marijuana for recreational use. Furthermore, 15 states have decriminalized marijuana (meaning that possession of small amounts cannot result in jail or prison time), yet in Arizona we still charge possession of any amount of marijuana as a felony.

Just as our legislators are not responding to the reality of declining juvenile crime by changing the three strikes laws, they are not being responsible with our marijuana laws. In 2018, former Republican state Rep. Paul Mosley sponsored a bill to reduce possession of up to 3.5 grams of marijuana from a felony to a misdemeanor charge. But despite having 36 other co-sponsors on the bill, it was rejected by the House. As of June 2019, Gov. Doug Ducey only signed one out of 17 proposed bills contributing to criminal justice reform

So, what can we do as citizens to bring Arizona in line with other states on these issues?

First, contact elected County Attorney Barbara La Wall at (520) 724-5600 and tell her to immediately stop making our children felons for possessing small amounts of marijuana (all types including cannabis).

Second, contact your state legislator and tell them to support legislation that makes possession of small amounts of marijuana a misdemeanor, and repeal the juvenile three strikes law.

Tony Zinman works as a juvenile public defender for Pima County.

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