Pubdate: Sun, 19 Feb 2006
Source: Daily News Transcript (Needham, MA)
Copyright: 2006 Daily News Transcript
Author: Rick Holmes,  is the Metrowest Daily News' editorial page editor
Bookmark: (Cannabis)
Bookmark: (Decrim/Legalization)


Save us from politicians sending messages.

They were at it again this week, debating a bill that would provide 
civil fines, instead of criminal records, for those caught possessing 
small amounts of marijuana.

"That's the wrong message to send to our kids," Attorney General Tom 
Reilly said. "We have to keep them out of drugs."

State Rep. Karyn Polito, R-Shrewsbury, agreed, saying the bill "sends 
the wrong message."

Let's get real: Politicians don't send messages, especially to kids, 
who couldn't name their state representative if their iPods depended 
on it. For 40 years, politicians have been "sending messages" to kids 
about the dangers of pot and for 40 years, the kids have been ignoring them.

State legislators and attorneys general don't send messages; they 
pass laws and prosecute people caught breaking them. The law they 
have now says they can send you to prison for six months and fine you 
$500 for possession of a single joint -- on top of your lawyer's 
fees, of course.

Another law makes anyone convicted of marijuana possession ineligible 
for federal college loans or grants. Nice message they are sending: 
Anyone who smokes pot shouldn't be able to go to college.

Reilly is worried about sending messages to kids, but the law he 
supports applies to adults as well. A federal study released last 
year found that 12 percent of adults in the greater Boston area had 
smoked marijuana in the previous month. Twelve percent broke the law 
by choosing this relatively benign alternative to a cocktail.

What message are the politicians sending to millions of adults? That 
they can't decide for themselves which mild intoxicant to enjoy. That 
their government believes they must be treated like children -- or criminals.

The adults aren't listening to the politicians'message any more than 
the kids are. Some of them have been laughing at "reefer madness" 
propaganda for 40 years, and the passage of time hasn't made it any 
more convincing.

In fact, the aging of the baby boomers has given science its first 
opportunity to measure the impact of long-term drug use.  In a recent 
review of the research, Time magazine reported that, while cocaine 
and heroin are as dangerous as originally thought, "the so-called 
demon weed turned out to be a lot less devilish than advertised.

"The popular image of the goofy, smoky slacker notwithstanding, a 
2003 study in the Journal of the International Neuropsychological 
Society found that even among regular users, there is no proof that 
pot causes irreversible cognitive damage," Time writes.

Long-term use can affect memory, but those effects fade if the user 
stops. Marijuana can be addictive for some, says psychologist Peter 
Provet, president of Odyssey House. "But a lot of people who use pot 
don't become addicts."

Forty years doesn't seem to have changed the politics of drug laws. 
State legislators all seem to have this Nixon-era belief that if they 
support any marijuana reform bill the voters will decide they are 
hippies and the narcs will search their sock drawers.

But the voters are way ahead of them. Over the last five years, 
voters in 26 Massachusetts districts -- including those represented 
by Sen. Richard Moore, D-Uxbridge, Rep. Debby Blumer, D-Framingham 
and Rep. Jim Vallee, D-Franklin -- have been asked in ballot 
questions whether they support a reform bill similar to the one now 
before the Legislature. In every case, voters supported the reforms 
by a healthy margin.

Moore, Blumer and Vallee all promptly said they would ignore the 
wishes of the voters in their districts. Something about sending a 
message, if I recall. Vallee, who was then chairman of the criminal 
justice committee, said it probably didn't have the votes to pass, so 
he wouldn't allow his committee to consider it.

But something has changed. Vallee's criminal justice committee was 
eliminated and a new committee on mental health and substance abuse 
was created. The new committee is concerned with getting effective 
treatment to people who are addicted and ill. It approaches substance 
abuse as an issue of public health, not public morality. It's more 
interested in helping people than in sending messages by locking them up.

That committee this week endorsed the decriminalization bill, but 
given the wimpishness of the other legislators, it may go no further. 
Asked about the bill, Rep. David Linsky, D-Natick, declined to take a 
position. "I'm not sure the bill will get to the floor," he said hopefully.

Even this bill, which would change the penalty for possession of less 
than an ounce of marijuana to a $250 fine, is a weak compromise with 
common sense.

The common sense approach would recognize that, by almost any 
measure, marijuana is no worse than beer. And the legitimate concerns 
about pot -- purity, potency and abuse by children -- could most 
easily be addressed by treating it exactly like beer.

Kids have told me it's easier to get hold of pot than alcohol. 
There's a reason for that: Alcohol is sold by liquor store owners who 
face heavy fines and lost business if they are caught selling to 
anyone under 21.

There's also a reason why the jump to hard  drugs is easier for 
pot-smokers than drinkers: The man at the liquor store might  want to 
talk you into a finer wine or fancier brew, but he doesn't stock 
cocaine  or crystal meth. Why not let him put some regulated, taxed 
marijuana in his  humidor along with the cigars?

But common sense and sound public policy go  out the window when 
politicians fall under the sway of reefer madness. They are  too busy 
sending messages no one is listening to and locking up otherwise 
responsible citizens.