Pubdate: Tue, 29 Oct 2002
Source: Eagle-Tribune, The (MA)
Copyright: 2002 The Eagle-Tribune
Author: Jason B. Grosky


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

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