Pubdate: Tue, 14 Oct 2008
Source: Daily News, The (Newburyport, MA)
Copyright: 2008 Eagle Tribune Publishing Company
Author: Dan Atkinson, Staff writer
Cited: Question 2
Bookmark: (Marijuana - Regulation)


NEWBURYPORT -- If you're caught going 80 mph on Interstate 95, you'll 
likely get off with a ticket and a fine. And if a ballot measure 
passes this Nov. 4, a similar penalty would await those possessing 
small amounts of marijuana.

A yes vote on Question 2 would decriminalize the current penalty for 
possession of an ounce or less of marijuana from a potential maximum 
of six months in jail and a $500 fine to a $100 fine and no criminal 
record. The question will appear on all Massachusetts ballots.

While advocates say decriminalization would save the state money and 
eliminate unduly harsh penalties for casual users, local law 
enforcement officials decried changing the law.

"It sends the wrong message -- things are mixed up enough," said 
Salisbury police Chief David L'Esperance. "I don't go for that 
argument that it doesn't hurt anybody."

The proposal would keep current penalties for selling, growing and 
trafficking marijuana, and penalties for driving under the influence 
of marijuana would remain the same as those for driving under the 
influence of other drugs.

The proposal is being fought by the Coalition for Safe Streets, a 
committee formed by opponents to decriminalization. Essex County 
District Attorney Jonathan Boldgett is the treasurer of the committee.

Steven Epstein, a Georgetown resident and a director of the 
Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition, said casual users often have 
no other major crimes on their records and should be treated as such.

"Most users aren't criminals in the sense that they go around 
stealing from people and beating up people," said Epstein, who 
supports the measure but is not working with its backers, the 
Committee for Sensible Marijuana Policies. According to records from 
Newburyport District Court, most people charged with possession of 
marijuana do not face the full penalty, often receiving a continuance 
without a finding and fines and probationary fees instead. Epstein 
said that the proposal would just put into law what is already in practice.

"This would make the way the law is applied permanent, so it is not 
approached arbitrarily," Epstein said.

But L'Esperance said marijuana can serve as a "gateway drug" for 
teenagers, and decriminalizing it would encourage underage use. He 
referred to a recent bust in Amesbury, where police have charged a 
17-year-old with dealing to several dozen people, including middle 
and high school students.

"It sends the message to those 50 to 60 kids that they're all right, 
they're all set," L'Esperance said. "That is just the wrong message to send."

Amesbury Sgt. Mark Gagnon agreed, saying the legislation would 
empower teenagers who have not tried the drug to take a chance.

"It would mean more access for kids who don't have it," Gagnon said. 
"Kids go from A to C to D students, hook up with friends after school 
and get high and play video games and listen to music, going from 
being involved in school activities to not being involved."

Epstein said the opposite effect was more likely.

"The less marijuana is a forbidden fruit, the less teens are likely 
to go overboard with it," he said.

Newburyport resident Scott Mortimer, who has used marijuana to treat 
his back pain, said he would vote yes on Question 2. He said 
decriminalization has support on the North Shore, pointing to its 
approval in the area on a 2002 non-binding referendum and the support 
of Rep. Michael Costello, D-Newburyport, for legalizing medicinal 
marijuana. While he respected concerns about underage use, Mortimer 
said changing the law was necessary.

"Nobody wants to send the message to youth that it's OK to use 
marijuana," Mortimer said. "This may be a case where people have to 
make a different policy choice. The police have to do a tough job, 
but I think people are asking them to stand down in this one area and 
try a different policy."
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