Pubdate: Wed, 28 May 2008
Source: Valley Advocate (Easthampton, MA)
Copyright: 2008 New Mass Media
Author: Maureen Turner
Cited: National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws
Cited: Jeffrey Miron's Report
Bookmark: (Students for Sensible Drug Policy)
Bookmark: (Soros, George)
Bookmark: (Law Enforcement Against
Bookmark: (Racial Issues)


Massachusetts voters can Just Say No to bad drug  policy.

I call Dick Evans to interview him. But he has his own  question-or,
more specifically, an assignment-for me:  "I challenge you to find
anyone who believes adults who  choose to use marijuana responsibly
deserve to be  arrested, prosecuted and locked up."

Evans is pretty sure I'll come up empty; he's even  willing to bet a
lunch on it. A Northampton attorney  and former member of the Board of
Directors of the  National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana
Laws,  or NORML, Evans spent decades advocating for the reform  of
drug laws, and while officially "retired" from the  cause, he still
tracks it closely.

These days, there's a lot to track. In November,  Massachusetts voters
could have the chance to  decriminalize the possession of one ounce or
less of  marijuana, making it a civil, not criminal, infraction.  On
the federal level, U.S. Reps. Barney Frank, a  Massachusetts Democrat,
and Ron Paul, a Texas  Republican (and renegade presidential
candidate), are  co-sponsoring legislation that would remove federal
penalties for the possession of small amounts of  marijuana. ("The
notion that you lock people up for  smoking marijuana is pretty
silly," Frank said as he  announced the bill on Bill Maher's HBO show
"Real  Time." That's one for Dick Evans.)

Add to that the increasing public debate about who ends  up behind
bars for drug crimes, and how much we as a  society pay to prosecute
and imprison them, and it's  tempting to say there's a groundswell of
interest, from  across the political spectrum, in re-examining our
drug  laws. But as Evans and other long-time activists will  tell you,
when it comes to drug policy, change is slow  in coming. Progress is
made in small, incremental  steps, which sometimes fall far short of
what reformers  would like to see.

"I think we can get lost in the increments," says  Evans. While small
changes can be important, he urges  that focus be kept on what, in an
email to the  Advocate, he called "the 900-pound gorilla that
terrifies so many people, and that is the broad  question of whether,
in 2008, the responsible use of  marijuana by adults with no visible
harm to themselves  or anyone else ought to remain a crime, wrecking
people's lives and diverting public revenues from  urgent needs."

Plenty of Massachusetts voters share Evans' view, at  least according
to a series of questions that have  appeared on local ballots in
recent years.

Since 2000, activists-most notably, the Massachusetts  Cannabis Reform
Coalition, or MASS CANN (the state  affiliate of NORML)-have worked to
get non-binding  public policy questions on marijuana reform on the
ballots in four state Senate districts and 33  Representative
districts. All were approved by a  majority of voters.

A handful of the ballot questions addressed the  legalization of
medical marijuana; there was also one  that would allow the growing of
industrial hemp, and  another to allow the state-regulated-and
state-taxed-sale of marijuana to adults.

But the vast majority of the questions-28 of the total  37-went
directly to the issue of decriminalization,  asking voters whether
possession of a small amount of  pot should be a civil violation.
Voters in every  district approved the question, by majorities ranging
 from 59 to 76 percent.

While public policy questions are non-binding, they do  serve as an
important way of demonstrating to  legislators the priorities of their
constituents.  Whether or not legislators heed those messages is, of
course, another matter.

At the very least, the message was heard by activists,  who saw
Massachusetts presenting a prime opportunity  for reforming marijuana
laws. That led to the creation  of the Committee for Sensible
Marijuana Policy, or  CSMP, the group behind the proposed November
ballot  question.

Under current Massachusetts law, marijuana possession  can lead to
jail, probation or a fine; a conviction can  also result in the
suspension of your driver's license,  the loss of your right to
possess firearms and the  denial of student loans. While first
offenses without  mitigating circumstances are typically continued
without a finding and dropped after one year if the  defendant has no
further legal problems, critics of the  system say there are a number
of ways prosecutors can  pursue a tougher penalty-if, for instance,
the arrest  happened near a school zone. They also contend that the
defendant's race and class can affect how aggressively  a drug charge
is pursued, a contention borne out by  several recent studies.

Even if a defendant's charges are continued and then  dropped, she
still has to go through the costly and  onerous legal system; as MASS
CANN puts it,  "Prosecution itself is used as a form of

If approved, the November ballot question would amend  state law so
that adults found guilty of possessing one  ounce or less would face a
$100 fine; those under 18  would also have to complete a "drug
awareness program"  and perform community service. The initiative has
been  endorsed by the American Civil Liberties Union as well  as NORML

Last fall, CSMP cleared the first hurdle for getting  the question on
the ballot, collecting about 81,000  valid petition signatures (15,000
more than needed) in  support. Now the group is conducting a second
required  signature drive, and needs to collect another 11,000  valid
signatures by June 18.

At the same time, the Legislature is considering  similar legislation
that would create civil penalties  for personal possession by adults.
Given the  historically slow progress of such bills, though,
reformers see the ballot question as a way to put the  issue directly
in the hands of voters. "On this issue,  the public is ahead of the
politicians," says Whitney  Taylor, manager of the ballot question

To Taylor, existing laws regarding marijuana are too  harsh. A person
convicted of possessing a relatively  small amount of pot could end up
with a criminal record  that would haunt him for years, standing as a
barrier  every time he applies for a job, a loan, an apartment.
According to CSMP, 7,500 new criminal records are  created each year
in Massachusetts for people found  guilty of possessing one ounce or
less of pot.

The criminal record issue has a lot of traction on  college campuses.
"Historically, the war on drugs has  been waged to protect young
people. After decades of  failed punitive prohibitionist policies, we
as young  people are here to say this war is actually hurting  us,"
says Tom Angell, government relations director for  Students for
Sensible Drug Policy, a national group  with chapters at about 125
high schools and colleges.

SSDP focuses on drug policies that affect young people,  such as
student drug testing. One particularly hot  issue has been the 2000
Higher Education Act, which  denied federal financial aid to students
convicted of  any drug offense, even if it happened before they were
in college. While the law was amended in 2006 to apply  only to
students convicted at the time they are  receiving aid, blocking
anyone's access to education is  wrong-headed, Angell says. Students
forced to drop out  of college for financial reasons will feel the
repercussions for a lifetime; some may even be more  likely to turn to
drugs when other opportunities are  denied. "We think that's an
incredibly  counter-productive policy," Angell says.

And in these days of municipal shortfalls, reformers  have in their
arsenal an especially persuasive  argument: cost savings. Whitney
points to a 2007 study  by Jeffrey Miron, a Harvard economist, that
found that  Massachusetts police departments spend a total of $29.5
million a year to arrest and process suspects for  possession of an
ounce or less of pot.

"Let's let that $29.5 million stay in police coffers,"  Taylor says.
"Let's let it stay in local communities  and fight violent crimes."

Several studies have found that in the 11 states that  already have
similar laws in place-some going back as  far as the 1970s-marijuana
use and crime rates have not  increased. "'Use is going to go through
the roof;  addiction is going to go through the roof'-all the
Chicken-Little arguments the opponents will make did  not come to
fruition," Taylor says.

In making the case for the ballot question, advocates  tread
carefully. They emphasize the cost-saving aspect  of
decriminalization, and point to the backing of  sober-minded
economists, including the 500 who endorsed  a 2005 study by Miron that
estimated that federal,  state and local governments could save $7.7
billion a  year if pot were legalized.

And, no doubt aware of the risk of being dismissed as  leftover
hippies or punky college kids, reformers enjoy  pointing to the
surprising array of people who have  supported decriminalization:
George Shultz, secretary  of state during the Reagan administration;
Nobel  laureate economist Milton Friedman; conservative  columnist
William F. Buckley, whose recent death was  mourned by
anti-prohibitionists around the country. Law  Enforcement Against
Prohibition, or LEAP, a  Medford-based nonprofit, counts current and
former  cops, judges and legislators among its members.

"This is a reform that liberals and conservatives support, that
people from all walks of life can  support," Taylor says.

Not everyone, of course, supports the reform. LEAP notwithstanding,
strong opposition is expected from  within the ranks of law
enforcement. The Massachusetts  District Attorneys Association has
condemned the CSMP  ballot question, contending it will increase
marijuana  use and reverse recent trends of declining pot use  among
teens. "The District Attorneys ask Massachusetts  parents, 'Do you
really want to encourage your kids to  smoke dope?'" the association
asks in its official  statement on the question.

The DAs also argue that there's a "direct link between  marijuana use
and public safety and public health." The  group points, by way of
example, to a study showing  that 41 percent of men arrested in
Chicago tested  positive for marijuana; what it fails to report is
what  charges these men faced, and if, in fact, they were  arrested
solely for pot possession.

Similarly sketchy is the assertion that "the criminal  justice system
is the largest single source of referral  to drug [not just marijuana]
treatment programs"; left  out is the question of whether these
referrals were  made, as a condition of law, to people arrested solely
 for possession of a small amount of pot.

More persuasive are statistics linking marijuana use to  impaired
driving, although, as the report notes, more  impaired drivers have
alcohol-a legalized drug-in their  systems than pot. Likewise, the DAs
point out the  health risks of inhaling tar and carbon monoxide from
pot, but sidestep the question of why cigarettes, which  contain the
same substances, are legal.

That line of reasoning also raises a sticky question:  most reasonable
people can agree that alcohol,  cigarettes and marijuana all pose
personal and public  health risks; why, then, are two of them legal,
and one  illegal?

It's not surprising the DAs oppose decriminalization,  Taylor says:
"They want all the tools to convict  people. That's their job."

Indeed, lots of jobs are directly tied to drugs  remaining illegal,
from those of prosecutors, police  and jailers to business that goes
to ad agencies  contracted by the government to produce anti-drug
campaigns, and to community groups that receive  government funding
for anti-drug work, notes Bill  Downing, president of MASS CANN.
"Their income depends  in part on this 'war [on drugs],'" he says.

Backers of the ballot question are mindful of the  public safety
arguments that will be used against their  cause. They point out that
the question is narrowly  defined, applying only to people carrying
what's  considered a "personal" amount of pot; it would have no
effect on laws applying to the sale, trafficking or  cultivation of
marijuana, or to crimes like driving  under the influence.

More to the point, the question would not legalize pot,  but rather
decriminalize it-an important distinction.  If it passes, Taylor
points out, "marijuana remains illegal. We're just creating a
different type of  penalty system. It deals with the fact that the law
is  broken, but it allows people to move on with their  lives."

As November gets nearer, opposition to the ballot  question will
likely intensify. The district attorneys  have already signaled one
likely line of attack:  questioning the political and financial
support behind  CSMP.

According to its most recent finance report, filed with  the state
Office of Campaign and Political Finance,  CSMP's money comes largely
from one source: George  Soros, who donated $400,000 of the almost
$430,000  raised in 2007. (Most of the money-$316,000-was used to
hire a Worcester-based firm that runs petition  signature campaigns.)

On the finance reports, Soros is listed as a  self-employed
"entrepreneur" and Manhattan resident. To  the DAs and others in favor
of prohibition, Soros is  the bane of their existence. A 77-year-old
native of  Hungary, Soros is a self-made billionaire investor  who's
used his fortune to fund numerous philanthropic  and political causes,
including Democratic campaigns.  Soros also sits on the board of the
Drug Policy  Alliance, an anti-prohibition group that calls for,
among other things, the decriminalization of marijuana,  the
legalization of medical marijuana and an end to  discriminatory drug

The Drug Policy Alliance is hardly a crackpot group;  its board
includes business executives, mental health  experts and religious
leaders, with "honorary" members  including George Shultz, past
Federal Reserve Chairman  Paul Volcker and former Surgeon General
Joycelyn  Elders. Still, as Allen St. Pierre, NORML's executive
director, notes, when it comes to the heated debate  over drug policy,
"there's probably not a more  polarizing figure" than Soros. He
predicts the  proponents of the ballot question will be painted by
opponents as out-of-state "fringe drug legalizers."

Ironically, while drug law reform might still be cast  as a "fringe"
movement, drug use-specifically, pot  smoking-has become increasingly
mainstream. According  to the Office of National Drug Control Policy,
the  government's chief anti-drug agency, a 2006 federal  study found
40 percent of Americans over the age of 12  have smoked pot, 10
percent in the last year (and some  suspect those figures are low,
given respondents'  reluctance to admit to committing a crime). A 2000
 survey by the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services  found that 20
million Americans smoke pot every year, 2  million on a daily basis.

Perhaps those figures explain the easy acceptance of  pot smoking in
popular movies and TV shows (like  Showtime's Weeds, about a suburban
widow who makes ends  meet by selling marijuana, and CBS' How I Met
Your  Mother, with its unapologetic references to its  characters
getting high). We've got a sitting president  who has indicated,
although never directly admitted,  that he has smoked pot, and is
rumored to have dabbled  in considerably harder stuff, and one
contender for  that job, Barack Obama, who is more forthcoming about
his history of pot and cocaine use.

Of course, Bush and Obama speak of their past use with  an air of
repentance, and neither favors ending the  prohibition on drugs
(although Obama does criticize the  Justice Department for raiding and
prosecuting medical  marijuana users). The other two major
presidential  candidates, Hillary Clinton and John McCain, also
oppose decriminalizing marijuana. Other presidential  candidates have
supported decriminalization, including  Ron Paul; Dennis Kucinich, the
Ohio congressman who  dropped out of the race months ago; and Mike
Gravel, a  Springfield native and former senator from Alaska, who
promised at one debate that, if elected, he would "do  away with the
'war on drugs,' which does nothing but  savage our inner cities and
put our children at risk."

Gravel, however, will never be president; neither will  Paul or
Kucinich. They have devoted supporters and  well-honed positions, but
they garner minimal coverage  from the media. Much of that coverage is
dismissive, in  large part due to their outside-the-mainstream
positions on issues like drug policy. Polls and public  policy
questions might signal that the public's view of  drug
use-particularly marijuana-is softening, but most  establishment
politicians are too wary to follow their  lead.

That's why reformers are excited to put the  decriminalization
question before Massachusetts voters.  "Any issue that comes with any
amount of controversy at  all, politicians are not ready to take a
stand on if  they don't have to," notes MASS CANN's Downing. "The
Legislature wants to avoid the issue completely because  they can only
lose by addressing this."

Reformers could find some support from Gov. Deval  Patrick, who's
spoken out about inequities in the  justice system, including the
undue hurdles created for  many under the existing criminal records
system. "He's  made the kinds of noises of someone who'd be amenable
[to drug reform]," St. Pierre says. "At his core, he's  got to be keen
on some reform. It's a waste of money."

Still, Patrick is a politician, and with that comes a  degree of
caution. "Clearly, from a political,  pragmatic view, he'd be very
happy to never have to say  the word 'marijuana,'" St. Pierre says.

It's getting harder for politicians to avoid drug  policy issues,
though, in light of a mounting pile of  evidence about inequities in
how those policies are  executed. In May, the Sentencing Project, a
justice  reform group based in Washington, D.C., and Human  Rights
Watch, which tracks global human rights issues,  released reports
showing deep racial disparities in how  drug laws are enforced. In
large part, the problem  stems from the intense focus on poor urban
minority  communities.

In 2006, 1.89 million people were arrested for drug  violations in the
U.S. More than 80 percent of the  arrests were for possession; about
40 percent were for  marijuana possession.

While the rate of drug use among whites and blacks is  roughly equal,
and blacks make up about 13 percent of  the total population, they
accounted for two-thirds of  the drug arrests. And black men are
nearly 12 times as  likely to be sent to prison for drug convictions
as  white men, according to the HRW report. (The reports do  not
indicate rates for Hispanics, since they used FBI  data that collects
stats by race but not ethnicity.)

"The race question is so entangled in the way the drug  war was
conceived," Jamie Fellner, author of the HRW  report, told the New
York Times. "If the drug issue is  still seen as primarily a problem
of the black inner  city, then we'll continue to see this enormously
disparate impact."

Indeed, race has shaped U.S. drug policy from the  start. In his 2003 book,
Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs,  and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market,
journalist Eric Schlosser traces drug prohibition back  to the influx of
Mexican immigrants in the early 20th  century. The new arrivals were not,
generally, warmly  greeted, and that anti-immigrant sentiment extended to
what Schlosser calls "their traditional means of  intoxication: smoking

Meanwhile, the association of marijuana with  African-Americans, and
particularly with the jazz scene  in cities like New Orleans, added
more racial fuel to  the fire. Before long, government officials were
warning of the alleged dangers of pot smoking. Users  were described
as extremely violent, possessing  superhuman strength when under the
influence, and prone  to insanity-all depicted, to unintentionally
comic  effect, in the now-cult classic 1936 film Reefer  Madness. By
1931, 29 states had banned pot; in 1937,  Congress passed a federal

Attitudes toward pot smoking softened somewhat in the  1960s, when it
became the drug of choice of white,  middle-class kids. In 1970,
federal law was amended to  differentiate marijuana from other
narcotics and lessen  penalties for possession of small amounts. At
the time,  NORML's St. Pierre recalls, marijuana reform "appeared  to
be on greased tracks."

Then came the conservative '80s, and Ronald Reagan's  "Just Say No"
anti-drug agenda. Marijuana was again  vilified as a highly dangerous
"gateway" drug that  would lead to use of harder substances. Drug laws
were  toughened; the laws regarding pot now vary widely from  state to
state, and, critics say, are open to varying  interpretation that can
lead to harsher results for,  say, a black kid from a distressed urban
area than a  white kid with a suburban address and parents who can
afford a lawyer.

"It's because black folks used it-that's why marijuana  and cocaine
and heroin are illegal, and that's why  tobacco and alcohol are legal
and receive government  subsidies. They're white folks' drugs," Evans
says. The  recent reports about racial disparities in the  enforcement
of drug laws, he adds, demonstrate "that  marijuana prohibition laws
have been very effective in  achieving their original purpose, which
was to repress  minority communities."

It's not drugs that have devastated America's inner  cities, critics
say-it's the government-sponsored,  publicly funded "war on drugs." In
the same way that  alcohol prohibition created a thriving black market
for  bootleggers and speakeasies-planting the seeds for  modern-day
organized crime in the process-the  prohibition on drugs has created a
black market that is  thriving despite the billions spent in the quest
to end  it.

"Certainly, there is a dangerous level of violence and  crime
associated with the drug trade, but that's only  because drugs are
illegal," argues Tom Angell of SSDP.  "Drug abuse is a serious issue.
& But there's no drug  known to man that gets safer when its
production is  handed over to violent drug cartels."

Which is why, reformers say, it's time to consider  withdrawing the
troops and declaring an end to the drug  war. That doesn't mean that
crimes associated with drug  selling or use-violence, theft-wouldn't
continue to be  prosecuted; rather, anti-prohibitionists say,
eliminating the black market for drugs would  significantly reduce
those related crimes. "In terms of  the big picture, we can keep
chasing our tail and  busting a drug gang here or there, or we can put
it all  out of business by making it legal," Angell says.

And this is where drug law reformers will lose some of  their base of
support; plenty of mainstream Americans  might see smoking the
occasional joint as no big deal,  but are they ready for a wholesale
lifting of the ban  on harder drugs?

They might, Evans says, if they consider just how  little the
prohibitionist agenda has accomplished.  "What is your definition of
victory in the war on  drugs?" he wonders. "And when we achieve that
victory,  how many people will be in prison, and how much will it

Decriminalizing marijuana could be an important, and  generally
palatable, first step toward rethinking how  we as a society view
drugs. "It's 2008-it's two  generations, almost, since the cultural
revolution-and  we still lock people up for pot," Evans notes. "What
have we accomplished by wrecking millions of lives and  spending
jillions of dollars? What have we  accomplished?"
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MAP posted-by: Larry Seguin