Pubdate: Wed, 23 Oct 2002
Source: Tri-Town Transcript (MA)
Copyright: 2002, Tri-Town Transcript
Author: Steven Epstein, Esq.
Bookmark: (Decrim/Legalization)
Note: The author is a founder and officer of the Massachusetts Cannabis
Reform Coalition.


To the editor: The possession of marijuana is a crime in Massachusetts. Each
year more than 11,000 persons appear in our criminal courts charged with
this crime. For years, we have fervently debated what the penalty should be.
Almost a year ago Zogby Polls found 61 percent of likely voters nationwide
were opposed to the arresting and jailing of nonviolent marijuana smokers.
This Nov. 5, voters in the lower Merrimack Valley will be among 350,000
registered voters in 19 Massachusetts state representative districts with
the opportunity to vote on ballot questions relating to the arrest and
jailing of marijuana possessors.

Voters in Amesbury, Newburyport and Salisbury (1st Essex District),
Georgetown Precinct 1, Groveland, Haverhill Ward 4 Precinct 3, Ward 7
Precincts 1 and 3, Merrimac, Newbury, Rowley and West Newbury (2nd Essex
District) and Andover Precincts 1, 7 and 8, Boxford Precinct 2, Georgetown
Precinct 2, Haverhill Ward 2 Precincts 1 and 2, Ward 5 Precinct 2 and Ward 7
Precinct 2, Methuen Precinct 7 and North Andover Precincts 7 and 8 (18th
Essex District) will instruct their representatives about "legislation
making possession of marijuana a civil violation, like a traffic ticket
instead of a criminal offense, and requiring the police to hold a person
under 18 who is cited for possession until the person is released to a
parent or legal guardian or brought before a judge." Voters in nine
districts in Suffolk County, as well as three districts each in Worcester
and Norfolk Counties and one district in Plymouth County will instruct their
representative about legislation "that would make possession of less than
one ounce of marijuana a civil violation, subject to a maximum fine of $100
and not subject to any criminal penalties."

In the 2000 election, 62 percent of voters in the old 4th Essex District
(one half of Georgetown and Boxford, Hamilton, Ipswich, Manchester and
Wenham) approved the former question. Sixty-six percent of the Middlesex
County voters to whom it was posed approved the latter question. These
voters recognized that our police are too valuable to be spending time
booking marijuana prisoners, writing reports and appearing in court, when
they could be out protecting our streets. They wanted to end the
discretionary power granted the police to arrest persons over 18 for
possession of marijuana. They wanted to end the absences from work and
school imposed upon persons criminally prosecuted when only the simple
possession of marijuana is involved. They wanted to permit the person to pay
a civil fine by mail without appearing in court.

Legislation effectuating the policy advocated by these questions is
currently sponsored on Beacon Hill by Representatives Jehlen (D-Somerville),
Swan (D-Springfield), Smizik (D-Brookline), Rushing (D-Boston), Balser
(D-Newton) and Senator Shannon (D-Winchester), a retired police officer.
Nothing in this legislation would end the criminal punishment for driving a
car under the influence of marijuana or for growing or selling it.

Legislation that would have given judges the discretion to treat marijuana
possession as a civil offense, although not ending the power of police to
arrest, was included in this year's budget but vetoed by acting governor
Jane Swift - the same Jane Swift for whom three of the seven persons she
seeks to pardon on her way out of office are marijuana offenders.

Adults and especially children may need to be discouraged by law from using
marijuana. Yet, marijuana use by adults is not a problem justifying their
arrest, criminal prosecution and the ancillary penalties that include:
curtailment of one's right to firearms; trade and driver's license
suspensions; and ineligibility for federally guaranteed student loans.
Parents of minors in possession of pot should be made aware of it so they
may punish their children with earlier curfews, grounding, additional chores
and loss of driving privileges in addition to a civil fine. Such private
punishments are more likely to rehabilitate the child than state-imposed
punishments that deny the child a driver's license and federally guaranteed
student loans and demand the child's expulsion from school.

Furthermore, the police and parents of a child below the age of 17 who
persistently refuses to obey the law may petition the Juvenile Court that
the child is in need of services. The court can then use the coercive power
of the state to help the parents by ordering the child to utilize medical,
psychological, psychiatric, educational, occupational and social services.

Though we disapprove of marijuana use, the criminal justice system is not
the place to express that disapproval. If you agree, vote "Yes" on Question
4 in the 2nd and 18th Essex Representative Districts, Question 5 in Amesbury
and Salisbury, and Question 6 in Newburyport.

Steven Epstein, Esq.

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