Drug court pioneer, federal judge speaks to push for legal pot

Published 1:00 pm Saturday, March 2, 2013

Now that voters in the states of Colorado and Washington have legalized the sale of marijuana in their states, the showdown between these new state laws and current federal law that makes marijuana sales illegal in all states still looms.

At least one Mississippi federal district judge and a pioneer in the drug court movement see Colorado and Washington as the first of many states to try to decriminalize marijuana — and he’s worried about it.

Southern District U.S. Judge Keith Starrett of McComb said in January that he had significant concerns about what is unfolding in Colorado and Washington — and that more states will follow.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Starrett has been a career champion of racial reconciliation, advocacy to protect children, and drug courts to create a path to keep first-time drug users from becoming career criminals.

“We dropped the ball in Colorado and Washington,” said Starrett, who worked as a member of the National Drug Court Professionals to stop the legalization effort in those states. “Our organization played a big part in the defeat of legalization in California, but we were caught flat-footed in the last election.”

Before assuming his present seat on the federal bench, Starrett was circuit judge for the Mississippi 14th Judicial District. Among other accomplishments while a circuit judge, he led in establishing and presiding over Mississippi’s first felony-level drug court.

Starrett was a pioneer in the drug court movement both in Mississippi and nationally. He also was appointed to the Mississippi Drug Court Commission by the chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court and was a member of the state commission to redraft the Mississippi Criminal Code.

The new marijuana laws in Colorado and Washington allow the recreational use of marijuana and require that the states set up a bureaucracy to license, regulate and tax those sales. That system is expected to be at least similar to the bureaucracies that exist in states to license, regulate and tax the sales of liquor, wine and beer.

Starrett estimates that following the lead of those states, as many as 10 other states could follow suit within the next year.

“Common sense people are losing the debate and a big part of the loss is attributable to untruths and half-truths being promoted by the legalization and medical marijuana communities,” said Starrett. “Hundreds of millions of dollars of venture capital has been lined up to meet the expected markets in the states where it (marijuana) is legal or expected to be legal soon. Corporate America will do the same with marijuana that it did with marketing cigarettes.”

His experiences on the state bench in Mississippi form the basis of his beliefs on this subject: “Very few people go to jail for marijuana and the ones that do are usually for possessing (a) pound or multiple pounds. However, marijuana is the primary gateway drug for other drugs that are significantly more addictive and have dramatically increased our prison population. Almost 90 percent of inmates had a drug or alcohol problem that contributed to their actions.”

Starrett, the savvy, experienced former state judge, knows his politics well enough to observe that Mississippi “will not legalize marijuana any time soon.”

“But the softening of attitudes (nationally) against legalization causes more people to accept it,” he said.

As I noted in an early column on this topic, remember Mississippi’s patchwork of beer and liquor laws and apply those same rules to marijuana — the mind reels.

(Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at 601-507-8004 or sidsalter@sidsalter.com)