Pubdate: Fri, 24 Feb 2006
Source: Allston-Brighton Tab (MA)
Copyright: 2006 Allston-Brighton Tab
Author: Rick Holmes, Guest Columnist
Bookmark: (Cannabis)
Bookmark: (Decrim/Legalization)
Note: Rick Holmes is editorial page editor of the MetroWest Daily 
News and this column appeared originally in that paper on Sun, 19 Feb 2006.


Save us from politicians sending messages.

They were at it  again last 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 said 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, said 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  last 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.
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MAP posted-by: Beth Wehrman