Former Supreme Court Chief Justice Calls for Drug Decriminalization

Burley MitchellBurley MitchellA former North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice’s suggestion that the state should consider decriminalizing the drug trade to avoid swelling its prison population has stirred debate over drug legalization in the Tarheel State.
Former Chief Justice Burley Mitchell spoke on November 16th, and before the week was up, at least one North Carolina editorial board was rallying to the cause, while opposition to the notion also rapidly appeared.

Mitchell, the state’s top judge from 1995 to 1999, was addressing a Raleigh forum on prison reform organized by NC Policy Watch, a state reform advocacy group, with the participation of the North Carolina chapter of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the Washington, DC-based, sentencing reform organization. With nearly 37,000 prisoners as of last week, the state suffers a chronic prison bed shortage. Nearly 5,400 North Carolina inmates are doing time for drug offenses.

Mitchell told the forum that the war on drugs in North Carolina and nationwide has been a “total failure” that filled the prisons. It was time to consider alternatives, he said. “What if we decriminalized drugs? Then you’d knock out all the profits of every dealer and more to the point, the big producers.” Drug-related crimes such as robbery and murder would also fall, he said.

Such fundamental solutions to prison overcrowding may not even have been broached if legislators, who did away with parole and moved to a tough sentencing grid a decade ago, had acted on recommendations from the state sentencing commission to reduce sentences, but they haven’t. At that same forum, former House Speaker Dan Blue, who helped passed those tough sentencing laws, said he didn’t understand why the legislature had failed to act on the commission’s recommendations.

Prisoner of the Drug WarPrisoner of the Drug WarBut it was the former chief justice’s call to think about legalization ? and that was what he was actually describing with his talk about knocking out the profits ? that aroused state media attention. Mitchell spoke on a Monday night; by Thursday, editorial writers and columnists were beginning to react.

“It’s one thing when a glassy-eyed spokesman for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws stares at the red light and makes an argument that marijuana is better for you than a glass of red wine, but it’s something else when Burley Mitchell is making the case for legalizing drugs,” declared the Lumberton Robesonian. Gratuitous swipes at the pot people aside, the newspaper endorsed Mitchell’s call for thinking outside the prison cell. The paper agreed that the drug war was a total failure, and while it said questions remained, it concluded: “It seems to us that a new approach to defeating the drug menace is needed, and if the former chief justice of the state ? no stranger to the courtroom ? believes legalizing drugs is worthy of conversation, then we don’t disagree.”

North Carolina, USANorth Carolina, USABut the Greensboro News & Record did disagree. In its editorial the same day, “A War Worth Waging,” the newspaper looked at the same questions about how it might work that the Robesonian did and found them too daunting. Saying that former Justice Mitchell was frustrated by setbacks in the drug war, the News & Record responded: “But surrender is the ultimate setback. If drugs are harmful to society now, toleration will only worsen the problem.” Even so, the News & Record called for less imprisonment, more drug treatment.

The latest contribution to the media discussion provoked by Mitchell came Sunday, when Winston-Salem Journal columnist Scott Sexton gave general support to Mitchell, but draw a sharp distinction between decriminalization and legalization, coming down in the former camp. Anyone arguing for legalization “would have to be on drugs,” because of what Sexton argued would be an increase in drug use. Still, there’s decrim: “Is decriminalization the answer? Would it reduce the number of crimes committed to finance a drug habit? Would it keep people like from dying?” he asked. “It’s worth a try. What we’ve tried so far doesn’t seem to be working too well.”