Pubdate: Sun, 30 Mar 2008
Source: Milford Daily News, The (MA)
Copyright: 2008 The Milford Daily News
Author: Rick Holmes, Opinion editor
Bookmark: (Marijuana)
Bookmark: (Decrim/Legalization)


Now that we've settled the casino thing, anybody for a joint?

Marijuana decriminalization is the next hot-button social issue 
moving through the state Legislature. But unlike casino gambling, 
marijuana reform can't be stopped by House Speaker Sal DiMasi. If the 
Legislature doesn't enact it, voters will see it on the November ballot.

The initiative is simple. Possession of marijuana is now a criminal 
offense, punishable by up to six months in jail and a fine of up to 
$500. A single joint can get you a criminal record, a CORI file that 
can keep you from getting housing or a job and that makes you 
ineligible for a student loan.

The initiative proposes reducing possession of less than an ounce of 
marijuana to a civil offense, punishable by a fine of up to $100. The 
laws concerning manufacturing or trafficking in pot wouldn't change, 
nor would the law against driving under the influence of marijuana. 
Juveniles would be fined, sentenced to perform community service and 
attend a drug education course.

Sound radical? It isn't. Eleven states already consider possession a 
civil offense, including New York, Maine, Nevada and even 
Mississippi. In those places, lower penalties have been in place for 
as long as 30 years.  Several studies could find no significant 
difference in marijuana use in those states as opposed to states with 
criminal penalties.

Decriminalization has public support, with 72 percent of respondents 
in a 2002 CNN/Time Magazine poll in favor of fines, but no jail time, 
for marijuana possession. Over the last eight years, non-binding 
decriminalization proposals have won voter approval in 30 
Massachusetts legislative districts - with an average "Yes" vote of 62 percent.

But reefer madness persists in the dusty corners of the State House.

"I do not know a thing about this piece of legislation," Rep. Martin 
Walsh, D-Boston, told the Judiciary Committee at a hearing on the 
initiative earlier this month, "but it doesn't make sense. It's not 
good policy."

Walsh isn't going to let ignorance stop him. "I intend on doing 
everything in my power as an elected official to fight this 
legislation," he said, according to a State House News Service account.

That's the kind of thinking that has kept the war on drugs going 
since the Nixon administration. There are two types of politicians: 
Those who think all drugs are equally evil - except for alcohol of 
course, without which all life would be drained from Beacon Hill - 
and those who know marijuana is no big deal but are scared to death 
they'll be branded soft on drugs by the likes of Martin Walsh.

Then there's Barney Frank, the exception to the rule.  Back in the 
1970s, when he was a Massachusetts state representative, Frank filed 
a bill that would have rescinded the criminal penalties for simple 
possession of marijuana.

Now Frank is one of the most powerful members of the U.S. Congress. 
As chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, he has big 
issues on his plate, like the home foreclosure crisis and the 
regulatory lapses that brought down Bear Stearns, threatens other 
Wall Street giants and is plunging the nation into recession.

But Frank is also filing legislation that would repeal all federal 
laws against the possession of small amounts of marijuana.

"It's time for the politicians in this one to catch up to the 
public," Frank told Bill Maher on the comic's late-night talk show. 
"The notion that you lock people up for smoking marijuana is pretty silly."

Silly and costly. According to the Committee for Sensible Marijuana 
Policy (CSMP), the group behind the referendum effort, last year 
7,500 Massachusetts residents were saddled with criminal records for 
possession of marijuana.

But they aren't the only ones who pay for it. Harvard economist Dr. 
Jeffrey Miron has calculated that taxpayers spend $29.5 million a 
year just to arrest and process offenders caught with an ounce or less of pot.

Frank told Maher he plans to name his legislation the "Make Room for 
Serious Criminals" bill.

Frank isn't the only politician talking common sense on marijuana. In 
the last two legislative sessions, the House Committee on Mental 
Health and Substance Abuse has voted favorably on bills filed by Rep. 
Pat Jehlen, D-Somerville, on which the ballot question are based. But 
the bills never made it to the floor of the House.  Only one vote 
counts in that chamber, and Speaker DiMasi isn't onboard.

That's why this is headed to the ballot. CSMP has already collected 
more than 81,000 signatures in support of the initiative. If the 
Legislature fails to enact the law by May 6, the organization needs 
to collect 11,099 more to put it on the ballot in the fall. With help 
from billionaire philanthropist George Soros, CSMP should have no 
problem clearing that hurdle.

Then the Bay State will have a lively debate, whether the politicians 
are comfortable with it or not. They weren't comfortable taking up 
gay marriage until the Supreme Judicial Court forced the issue, and 
most legislators did their best to avoid taking a stand on casinos.

Debating marijuana will be tricky. Some media types over at the 
Boston Herald, in the juvenile end of the talk radio dial and among 
lifestyle-obsessed local TV news anchors, can't seem to talk about 
marijuana policy without giggling.

But getting busted is no laughing matter, and this is a topic a lot 
of voters are familiar with. A federal agency reported a few years 
ago that 12 percent of metro Boston residents had smoked marijuana 
within the past month. Millions more have tried it sometime in their lives.

They knew they were breaking the law, and they know the law didn't 
stop them from doing it. Come November, they'll get to help decide 
whether that offense is serious enough to result in a jail term or a 
criminal record that lasts a lifetime. 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake