Legislation aims to end racial disparities in youth possession of weed

By: - March 4, 2021 6:05 am
BUD

Even if current laws are a deterrence, they are not being applied equally, state lawmakers were told. (Image by Stay Regular from Pixabay)

Nevadans voted in 2016 to “Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol,” but experts say when it comes to young people and law enforcement, a wide disparity remains. A bill before lawmakers aims to narrow the gap.

“Typically youth in possession of alcohol are reprimanded but not detained,” Dr. Carmen Jones, a pediatrician, testified before lawmakers Wednesday. “I believe cannabis should be treated the same way.”

Juveniles, especially those of color, are being detained for use or possession of a legal
substance — a punishment rarely, if ever, meted out to youth using or possessing alcohol or tobacco.

Of the 1,009 juveniles referred to the Clark County Department of Juvenile Justice in 2019 for marijuana offenses – the second most frequent infraction behind battery — 44 percent were Hispanic, 36 percent were Black, and 17 percent were white.
Assembly Bill 158 is intended to stop the criminalization of young people for a status offense — one that is based on age.

The measure says a minor convicted of possessing or using marijuana or alcohol is not
subject to imprisonment. Instead they’ll be required to complete counseling or community
service, offering them a proverbial “second chance,” according to proponents.

“Public defenders are like Holden Caulfield, trying to catch children before they go off the cliff’s edge, and maintain their innocence,” Clark County Chief Deputy Public Defender John Piro testified in support of the measure.

“The intent is to ensure fairness and equality in the justice system as it relates to
possession of alcohol, tobacco and cannabis,” testified child advocate A’esha Goins.

“It answers the cries of those in the juvenile justice system that you may go home,” she
said.

“In no way am I here to promote the use of cannabis,” Jones, the pediatrician, told lawmakers. “There are children, albeit adolescents, being held in detention because of cannabis possession.”

Jones said youth of color are three to four times as likely to be referred to detention as their white counterparts.

“I do not believe those offenders of any color should be held in detention,” Jones testified, noting it’s traumatic for an adult to be detained in a holding cell. “I hope you will consider the harm inflicted on these individuals.”

Jones testified incarceration for status offenses such as marijuana and alcohol possession can initiate or exacerbate drug use, create or worsen problems in the home, and open “the revolving door of recidivism.”

“Children and adolescents should not be referred to a detention facility and certainly not
for a first offense,” Jones said, adding that “while these laws deter certain behaviors,
they are not being applied equally.”

Jones suggested youth using alcohol or marijuana should not be committed to a rehabilitation facility, “as you would not do that to a youth using tobacco.”

Instead, she said, the young person may benefit from a psychological evaluation.

“It is my professional opinion the existing law is excessive and counterproductive to the
development of these young people,” said Anthony Harris, a licensed drug and alcohol
counselor.

Harris noted the measure is fiscally responsible because “treatment is more effective than
incarceration.”

The bill provides for courts to automatically seal the records of youth convicted of marijuana or alcohol possession.

An amendment offered by the Nevada District Attorneys Association provides for penalties
based on the number of times individuals commit offenses.

But John Jones of the Clark County District Attorney’s office testified the mandatory sealing
provision would prevent law enforcement and prosecutors from knowing the number of
prior offenses, if any.

“Tiered penalties would be illusory and all offenses would be considered the same,” he
said.

Committee Chairman Steve Yeager expressed interest in “one uniform punishment.”

“I’m just wondering why the police are involved at all,” said Assemblyman David Orentlicher, who objected to a provision that law enforcement notify parents while detaining the child.

Orentlichher said youth possession should not be “something for the criminal justice system to handle. I don’t think police should be citing kids.”

A similar measure passed in New Jersey last month drew the ire of police who complained it decriminalized youth possession and prohibited authorities from notifying parents.

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Dana Gentry
Dana Gentry

Dana Gentry is a native Las Vegan and award-winning investigative journalist. She is a graduate of Bishop Gorman High School and holds a Bachelor's degree in Communications from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Gentry began her career in broadcasting as an intern at Channel 8, KLAS-TV. She later became a reporter at Channel 8, working with Las Vegas TV news legends Bob Stoldal and the late Ned Day. Gentry left her reporting job in 1985 to focus on motherhood. She returned to TV news in 2001 to launch "Face to Face with Jon Ralston" and the weekly business programs In Business Las Vegas and Vegas Inc, which she co-anchored with Jeff Gillan. Dana has four adult children, two grandsons, three dogs, three cats and a cockatoo named Casper.

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