Pubdate: Tue, 29 Oct 2002 Source: Eagle-Tribune, The (MA) Copyright: 2002 The Eagle-Tribune Contact: http://www.eagletribune.com/ Details: http://www.mapinc.org/media/129 Author: Jason B. Grosky SHOULD POT PUT USERS IN JAIL? If Nicholas W. Ahern had been caught with pot 11 miles down the road in Boxford, instead of in Merrimac, he could have saved $2,500 and a trip to a jail cell. The 19-year-old carpenter was arrested by Merrimac police in January for having the drug, but in Boxford, Chief Gordon A. Russell has essentially made marijuana possession a civil offense. For 32 years, Russell has not made a single arrest based solely on marijuana possession. Instead, he's taken down the offender's name for in-house records, disposed of the drug and let the person go on his way. The 55-year-old chief supports making marijuana possession a civil offense in Massachusetts -- something voters in the 1st, 2nd and 18th Essex voting districts will weigh in on at the polls Nov. 5. Voters will decide whether to support "decriminalizing" marijuana so that offenders would receive a fine instead of facing a judge. Because it is a non-binding question, the state Legislature is not bound to enact the initiative if voters approve. "You don't have to be a marijuana smoker ... to realize our tax dollars are far too precious to be spent on paying for a police officer to be booking, writing reports and possibly appearing in court on a marijuana offense," said marijuana activist Stephen S. Epstein of Georgetown. The Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition Inc., founded by Epstein a decade ago, is pushing for the law change. The group hopes favorable voting results will sway legislators to change the law. Supporters say changing the law would save the millions of dollars spent by law enforcement, the court system, jails and forensic drug labs. Opponents say softening the law will cause more people to experiment with marijuana, characterized as a "gateway" drug to harder-hitting narcotics like cocaine and heroin. Judge Kevin M. Herlihy regularly deals with drug addicts through his "drug court" program in Haverhill, which works toward getting people clean and out of trouble. Weakening the law will make access to marijuana that much easier for teenagers, with little consequence, he said. "There are a lot of you kids around here fooling around with that stuff. If all they have to do is mail in a $50 ticket, that's not going to stop them from using the drug," said Herlihy, a judge for 17 years, now sitting in Haverhill and Newburyport district courts. "I'm not so concerned about the pot smokers from the Grateful Dead era. They're not going to change their habits." Russell figures he's in the minority of police chiefs in favor of decriminalization. The chief said he's seen several cases where a person gets "jammed up" years down the road for something which happened in his youth. Old charges of marijuana possession come back to haunt many people years after a teenage mistake, he said. In addition, Russell sees marijuana as no different from other potentially dangerous substances that are legal, from tobacco to fatty treats. "People are going to drink alcohol. People are going to eat junk food," he said. "I don't recommend any kind of mind-altering substance at all, especially marijuana that's going to be smoked." Under decriminalization, trafficking and selling marijuana would remain a crime. Beyond Massachusetts, the governments of England and Canada are pushing toward decriminalizing marijuana in 2003. The decriminalization question was on the ballot in four voting districts in 2000, and passed each time with more than 60 percent of the vote. It got 62 percent approval in the 4th Essex District, and state Rep. Bradford R. Hill, D-Ipswich, agreed to file a bill to decriminalize the drug. The decriminalization question is on the ballot in 19 districts this year. Hill said the same bill is still being "studied in committee," which he said is "a way to kill a bill." "I don't think the Legislature right now has the appetite to make these changes," Hill said. "If public safety officials, the DAs' offices and police chiefs thought (softening the law) would make the world a better place, I think we would see changes." Lawrence Police Chief John J. Romero believes changing the law would hinder police, not benefit them." So what? We're saying because it's not a serious crime we should take it off the books?" he said. "It's just as important to deal with the minor violations as the serious crime." Prior to joining the Lawrence force, Romero was a police sergeant in New York City. At one point, NYPD backed off enforcing lesser violations to zero in instead on more serious crimes, he said. The plan backfired. "We let the little crimes go," he said. "But for us, we learned that the same people who were committing the minor violations were committing the more serious ones. If you deal with it on the lower level, it never elevates to the upper level. "Making marijuana use a civil matter essentially condones its use, he said. That's a mistake, given that most youngsters enter the drug world via marijuana, he said. Police Sgt. Michael J. Reilly, head of the Seacoast's Northeast Merrimack Valley Drug Task Force, said gentler laws would increase the demand for marijuana on the streets, leading to more drug dealers fighting over buyers and turf. Plus, the number of drug-induced vehicle car accidents would rise, Reilly said. Decriminalizing marijuana would save Massachusetts at least $24.3 million in annual law enforcement costs alone, according to a report released last week by Jeffrey A. Miron, an economics professor at Boston University. The report was commissioned by the Drug Policy Forum of Massachusetts, which seeks alternatives to current drug policies. Board member Michael D. Cutler said decriminalizing marijuana would effectively cut out the middleman and stop wasting time. He said the majority of people arrested for marijuana possession go through the booking procedure and then the court system to reach the same end -- a ticket. "Let's cut to the chase -- pay the fine and be done with it," said Cutler, a Brookline lawyer. While advocates say decriminalizing marijuana would free up the court system, Judge Herlihy said there are other crimes that should be made civil offenses first -- such as people caught driving an unregistered vehicle. When asked what impact decriminalizing would have on the courts, the state Supreme Judicial Court declined comment, calling the non-binding ballot question "speculative." Right now, first-time marijuana offenders like Ahern of Merrimac often end up having their case continued without a finding -- and then a person's record is wiped clean if he follows probation terms for six months. Marijuana possession carries maximum penalties of two years in jail and a $2,000 fine. A person could also have his driver's license suspended for up to five years and lose other privileges -- federal student loans, for example. Ahern said he is in favor of decriminalizing marijuana. He spent $2,500 between court penalties and legal fees. He contends the money spent, coupled with his punishment -- 100 hours of community service and five months' worth of court-ordered classes -- doesn't fit the crime. "It was ridiculous," the Merrimac teenager said. Epstein, the Georgetown lawyer and father of three, has spent 10 years pushing for softer marijuana laws. He knows the road to getting enough votes in the Legislature is a long one, but one he continues to travel. "We are showing more and more success at the polls," he said. "We're looking to legalize it and tax it like tobacco and alcohol, ultimately. Right now we just want to get some more politicians out front on decriminalizing it. First we'll save money, and then we'll start making the commonwealth some money."