Pubdate: Sun, 6 Jan 2008 Source: Berkshire Eagle, The (Pittsfield, MA) Copyright: 2008 New England Newspapers, Inc. Contact: http://www.berkshireeagle.com/ Details: http://www.mapinc.org/media/897 Author: Benning W. De La Mater, Berkshire Eagle Staff Bookmark: http://www.mapinc.org/decrim.htm (Decrim/Legalization) Bookmark: http://www.mapinc.org/find?420 (Marijuana - Popular) Bookmark: http://www.mapinc.org/mmj.htm (Marijuana - Medicinal) Bookmark: http://www.mapinc.org/people/Whitney+Taylor USE OF MARIJUANA A HOT TOPIC, WITH BALLOT QUESTION POSSIBLE The debate over marijuana is a cloudy one. It's an illegal drug ... used by presidents. Heads get high ... cancer patients get hungry. Most pot smokers don't try heroin ... most heroin addicts tried pot first. One thing's for certain: This debate is coming to a water cooler near you. The people behind the Committee for Sensible Marijuana Policy, a Boston-based advocacy group, have cleared the first hurdle to reduce the state's penalty for minor pot possession from a misdemeanor to a civil infraction. In their world, walking down North Street with an ounce of marijuana in your jeans - a sandwich bag full of pot in your pocket - is the same as speeding on the Turnpike. The committee secured enough signatures (81,758) on a petition this past fall to pass it on to state legislators. If politicians don't make it a law this spring - which they can do but which rarely happens - the campaign will need 11,099 additional signatures by July 9 to push the referendum onto the November ballot. Then, the voters of Massachusetts would decide. The committee's martyrs are youths who get criminal records attached to their names for life and the $24.3 million it says is wasted by police each year in busting and booking marijuana offenders. Berkshire law-enforcement officials are against the campaign and say that reducing the penalties would foster a blase attitude toward the drug, one that would tempt more people -- especially children -- to try it. The state issue also has a local twist: The chairwoman for the marijuana committee, Whitney Taylor, a 37-year-old Boston resident, served as campaign director for Judith Knight, the Great Barrington attorney who lost the 2006 Berkshire County district attorney's race to David F. Capeless. The focal point of that race was the arrests of 19 teens and twentysomethings who were charged during a 2004 drug sting in the Taconic Lumber parking lot in Great Barrington. Taylor also was an active member of Concerned Citizens for Appropriate Justice, the group that galvanized after the arrests and lobbied Capeless for lenient prosecution during the trials. A 16-year-veteran of championing drug reform from California to Maryland, Taylor said Massachusetts voters -- not outdated laws -- should determine the fate of the marijuana debate. "There's support for this from all walks of life," she said. "The fact is there would be both a human savings and a fiscal savings. It's just smart public policy." Taylor backs up her claim of support with numbers. More than 81,000 registered Massachusetts voters -- nearly 20 percent more than the required 66,593 -- signed a petition this past fall to move the ballot question ahead. In all, signatures were collected in 350 of the state's 351 towns and cities. Locally, the number of signatures included 831 in Pittsfield, 482 in North Adams, 161 in Dalton, and four in Alford. State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, said he is strongly opposed to the idea of decreasing marijuana penalties. "I believe it would send the wrong message to society," Pignatelli said. "If you don't want a criminal record, then don't break the law - -- it's that simple. That's the lesson kids need to understand -- they're jeopardizing financial assistance for higher education." Pignatelli said he is against mandatory sentences for drug sales near a school zone and is "sympathetic to kids who make stupid mistakes." But he said that decriminalizing marijuana would create "an air of leniency" toward drugs. "I don't think the attitude of society has changed toward this drug," he said. "I would be surprised if the general populace voted this through. I'm not a big fan of government by referendum anyway, but I just hope that people understand what yes and no mean." The current penalties for possession of an ounce or less of marijuana are a $500 fine and up to six months in jail. Individuals are arrested and booked, and convicted offenders are entered in the state's Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) system. Under the Committee for Sensible Marijuana Policy's proposed law change, those caught with an ounce or less would have their marijuana confiscated, be handed a ticket and face only a $100 fine. Offenders under age 18 would have to enter a drug-awareness program. Taylor said the laws against selling the drug and driving under the influence of it would remain untouched. According to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), 12 states, including Maine and New York, already have reduced penalties for marijuana possession. "This is not decriminalization in the legalizing sense," Taylor said. "What we're talking about is changing the penalties and putting an end to a system that stops people from moving forward with their lives, getting student loans or even jobs." Harvard economist Jeff Miron conducted a study on the financial costs of current marijuana enforcement and found that at least $24.3 million is spent each year by police departments across the state in arrest and booking costs. That does not include $68.5 million spent in the courts and $13.6 million in jails. Taylor said this money should be used to add more police officers and equipment and to fight violent crime. But local law-enforcement officials point out that not a single warrant has been issued for marijuana possession. Most marijuana possession arrests, they say, are "add-on charges" -- meaning they find marijuana in a car or in a home after another crime has been committed. Capt. Patrick F. Barry, head of the Pittsfield Police Department's detective unit, said his officers usually focus on drug dealers. "The reality is," he said, "if a cop stops a car for speeding or we're on a domestic-abuse call and we find marijuana, that person will be arrested and charged. We find a roach, a marijuana pipe, a bag in someone's car when we do a traffic stop. But we rarely target marijuana possession. "I don't want to say it's decriminalized now, but no one is going to jail for a first-time possession drug charge." Barry declined to state his opinion on the proposed law change. But he did say that dealers could play it safe if lower penalties were instituted. "If you have a guy with (just over) an ounce right now, that's possession with intent to distribute," he said. "An ounce is 40 joints' worth. That's quantity. If the law was changed, dealers would make sure they only carried around an ounce or less. It could make it tougher for us." Lt. Joseph McDyer, a state police officer and head of the Berkshire County Drug Task Force, said he is against the marijuana proposal and doesn't believe it would help police departments. "It wouldn't free us up at all," he said. "All marijuana possession charges result from other police work. All these (marijuana committee) people want to do is get high. They don't see the tragedies. There's a small segment of society that will move on from alcohol to marijuana to prescription drugs and harder drugs." McDyer said tetrahydrocannabinol (THC, the psychoactive substance in marijuana) "is a dangerous drug, and we're now seeing pot with higher THC levels than ever before." According to a study cited by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, THC increases heart rates, and the risk of a heart attack more than quadruples in the first hour after smoking marijuana. A Yale University study also found that 50 percent of healthy volunteers given THC showed symptoms of psychosis. Conversely, the drug has medicinal purposes, and 12 states have adopted legislation or initiatives that permit marijuana use for the treatment of nausea and anorexia associated with cancer and AIDS and for neurological conditions such as multiple sclerosis and epilepsy. Although Massachusetts passed legislation recognizing marijuana's medicinal value, the drug has never been legal for those purposes in the state. Capeless said changing the current marijuana penalties would be a setback to the advances made in the war on drugs. He said the justification of saving police dollars is "a ludicrous claim." "The public needs to understand that we have a very fair and responsible statute right now with regards to possession of marijuana," Capeless said. "On a first offense, we recommend that the matter be dismissed and the person placed on probation." Taylor said drug interdiction is much different in Berkshire County from what it is in urban areas such as Springfield, Worcester and Boston, "where they are targeting specific groups." "They do go after possession in a tough way, and these people are getting (put into the Criminal Offender Record Information system)," she said. Capeless said roughly 4 percent of the cases that go through his office each year deal with marijuana possession. In 2005, 183 of the 271 total marijuana possession charges involved other criminal charges. In 2006, it was 174 of the 262 total charges, and in 2007 (through Dec. 1), it was 108 of 184. "I think that shows that marijuana is directly associated with other criminal activity," Capeless said. "This proposal is a very dangerous initial step toward decriminalization. Good, positive work is being done to fight illegal drug use." Capeless, vice president of the Massachusetts District Attorney's Association, said district attorneys from across the state recently gathered and talked about the voter initiative. "We've discussed this, and we're unanimously against it," he said. "We will be actively involved in sending out a clear message." Michael, a Pittsfield resident who asked that his last name not be used and who signed the marijuana petition last fall, said he expects the issue to generate heated debates. He believes there's a generational divide between those who favor marijuana decriminalization and those who don't. "Outside of the actual 'smoking,' I've never really seen anything harmful about marijuana," he said. "A lot of people smoke marijuana. And a lot of people drink, too. I just don't see a big difference." NORML reports that more people are smoking marijuana today than ever before. At least 100 million Americans (33 percent) have tried pot, with 25 million people consuming it at least once a year and 15 million using it in the past month. In 1970, there were an estimated 188,682 arrests on marijuana-related charges. Last year, there were more than 830,000. This millennia-old mystical plant has been causing a ruckus for decades. It was during the counterculture revolution of the 1960s that marijuana, aka Cannabis sativa, saw a rise in recreational use. It's been studied by the Nixon administration, used at concerts to heighten the musical experience, and glorified -- and vilified -- on television and in movies. In his book, "Hemp: Lifeline to the Future," Chris Conrad lists seven presidents as cannabis users, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. They weren't alone. Who can forget former President Clinton's famous "I did not inhale" quote? The pot debate apparently won't end anytime soon, or perhaps, even with a vote. Taylor said she believes Massachusetts is ready for a change in the laws. "(Twelve) states have decriminalized this, and none of the problems have come to fruition," she said. "It's still going to be illegal. We're taking the penalty and making it a civil offense. Let's not punish people for the rest of their lives." [sidebar] MARIJUANA FACTS # Drug use in the United States wasn't defined as a federal crime until 1914, under the Harrison Act. # By 1937, 23 states had outlawed marijuana. That year, the federal government passed the Marihuana Tax Act, which made nonmedical use of the drug illegal. # At least 7,500 people are arrested for marijuana possession in Massachusetts each year. # Twelve states have reduced the penalties for marijuana possession, starting with Oregon in 1973. The other states are Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, New York, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina and Ohio. # Massachusetts ballot questions have varied in importance over the years, including repealing Prohibition, eliminating income tax, outlawing capital punishment, and enacting campaign finance reform. # Laws passed by states and cities to decriminalize marijuana do not result in the drug being legal. The federal government regulates marijuana through the Interstate Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Under the Supremacy Clause, any state law in conflict with a federal law is not valid. Federal agents don't normally spend time on small possession charges, though, unless they involve crossing state and national borders. # The Committee for Sensible Marijuana Policy collected signatures for its Massachusetts marijuana ballot referendum in 350 of the state's 351 cities and towns. The only town that failed to register a signature was Berkshire County's Mount Washington, with a population of 146. Sources: Time Magazine, the Committee for Sensible Marijuana Policy, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, Eagle news services.