Pubdate: Wed, 26 Mar 2008
Source: Daily Free Press (Boston U, MA Edu)
Copyright: 2008 Back Bay Publishing, Inc.
Author: Kimberly Wexler
Bookmark: (Cannabis)
Bookmark: (Decrim/Legalization)


A bill that would reduce the punishment for marijuana possession in 
Massachusetts passed the Joint Committee on the Judiciary after a 
hearing last week, moving it one step closer to getting on the ballot 
in November.

The legislation would decriminalize possession of less than an ounce 
of marijuana, and reduce the punishment for "personal use" of 
marijuana from six months' probation and a driver's license 
suspension to a $250 fine.

Supporters of decriminalization in the State House and from outside 
advocacy organizations maintain the bill would not lead to increased 
drug use and would dole out a punishment proportionate to the 
offense, while opponents say the bill will lead to increased use of 
harder drugs like heroin.

Sen. Patricia Jehlen, a Medford Democrat, sponsored the bill and said 
she thinks reducing the punishment to a civil offense would be a more 
effective use of public money and would promote public safety better 
than current rules.

Similar bills have already passed in 11 other states and evidence 
shows that decriminalization does not increase drug use, she said.

According to a study conducted by Harvard economics professor 
Jefferey Miron, the decriminalization of marijuana did not lead to 
any measurable increase in marijuana use in states that 
decriminalized marijuana, and could save law enforcement about $29.5 
million annually.

Steve Epstein, treasurer of Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition, 
testified at last week's hearing and said though there is strong 
support for the bill, most people opposed to the bill think 
decriminalizing marijuana is a backward step in the war on drug abuse.

"I think the bottom line is: it would be nice to know that sooner 
rather than later [that] persons over the age of 18 are not going to 
be handcuffed for smoking a little marijuana," Epstein said in a 
phone interview.

Rep. Martin Walsh, a Boston Democrat, testified against the 
decriminalization of marijuana and said though 57 percent of his 
constituency voted in favor of decriminalizing marijuana, he would do 
"everything in his power" to prevent the bill's passage.

Despite comparisons between alcohol and marijuana by reform 
supporters, Walsh said they are "two very different substances."

Walsh said Massachusetts leads the country in rates of heroin abuse, 
and the rate would only increase if pot were legalized.

"The next step after marijuana potentially could be OxyContin, heroin 
and then the next step after that, as we all know, is jails, mental 
institutions or death," he said.

Sen. Gale Candaras, a Wilbraham and chair of the Joint Committee on 
Mental Health and Substance Abuse, said evidence suggests that 
alcohol is more a gateway drug than marijuana.

Rep. Cory Atkins, a Concord Democrat, said the repercussions of 
marijuana convictions are more severe than the offense itself.

"Marijuana is not considered to be one of the 'harder' drugs, yet 
kids get caught with it and it stays on their record forever," he said.

Keith Stroup, founder of the National Organization for the Reform of 
the Marijuana Laws, was arrested for smoking a joint at this year's 
Marijuana Freedom Rally at the Boston Common.

"Last year, over 7,000 people had their lives needlessly scarred or 
interrupted for engaging in a relatively harmless activity," he said.

Stroup, 64, said the charges would be dropped if he apologized, but 
he refused to make a statement. He said the effects of smoking pot 
are less harmful than the effects of cigarettes and alcohol.

Whitney Taylor, the treasurer and chairwoman for the Committee for 
Sensible Marijuana Policy, said the initiative is well-supported 
because 30 public policy votes in the last seven years about the 
issue have passed every time with an average 63 percent majority.

Taylor said the committee got well over the required number of 
signatures for the initiative's petition and will begin a second 
signature-gathering phase to get the issue on the November ballot.

Students for Sensible Drug Policy member Stacy Fontana said students' 
attitude toward marijuana is different than that toward alcohol 
because the substances do not intoxicate people in the same way.

"You can smoke weed and still do school work, but no one gets drunk 
and then sits down to write a paper," she said.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom