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Prison Superintendent Advocates For Marijuana Legalization

This year, Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin signed a law that decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana. But some say that doesn’t go far enough and they’d like to see marijuana legalized.

Richard Van Wickler agrees. Why his pro-legalization stance stands out from others is that he’s a 20-year veteran of law enforcement. He serves as prison superintendent for the Cheshire County (NH) Department of Corrections. He speaks for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, and he joined VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb.

“If we decriminalize we allow the illegal drug enterprise to flourish. That money goes to bad guys, that money funds terrorism. If we legalize, control, regulate, tax in the same way that we do for alcohol, we put the illegal drug dealer out of business,” Van Wickler said, emphasizing that advocating for policy reform is not the same as advocating for using marijuana.

Van Wickler said at the prison he supervises, at any given time between 13 and 15 percent of their bed space is occupied by a non-violent drug offender and while the statistics vary, in the United States the cost to keep someone incarcerated for a year is approaching $32,000.

“The fact is policies like mandatory minimum sentencing, drug war issues have meant that the United States has had to build over 900 jail beds every two weeks for the last 20 years, this while violent crime in our country is at a 30 year low,” Van Wickler said.

The states of Colorado and Washington recently took the step to legalize marijuana, and he thinks other states should follow.

“The sky is not falling, you did not see an increased police presence, there was not rioting in the streets. The legislature is excited in Colorado about looking forward to the revenue that inevitably they’re going to receive from this policy. Constituents should be happy that we’re not going to be incarcerating people there in Colorado that don’t need to be. Jails should serve one primary purpose, and that is public safety. If an individual is not a threat to public safety, then they should not be incarcerated in jail,” Van Wickler said.

Richard Van Wickler will be speaking at a town hall meeting on the legalization of marijuana, on November 12 from 7-9 p.m. in Room 11 of the State House in Montpelier.

A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
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