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As Frank Prepares Marijuana Bill, States Make Own Efforts

Jimbo

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by Matthew Huisman,

United States
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WASHINGTON -- Proponents of U.S. Rep. Barney Frank's proposal to legalize small amounts of marijuana are pointing to efforts in some states -- including Massachusetts -- to decriminalize the drug as evidence of public support for Rep. Frank's plan.

Rep. Frank, D-Mass., said recently that he will introduce two bills, one that would decriminalize possession of less than 100 grams -- or 3.5 ounces -- of marijuana and another that would grant protection to states that decide to allow medicinal use of marijuana.

"The public is now ready for this," Rep. Frank said in a telephone interview. "I have long thought it was foolish to have these laws on the books, but now as I look at the public opinion, it's clear that this is wanted."

Rep. Frank said that although he does not support marijuana use, he believes that adults should be able to consume small amounts without facing criminal penalties. He said prosecution of marijuana charges costs federal law enforcement agencies time and resources. Rep. Frank, who said he has no experience with marijuana, added, "I think marijuana is less harmful than al**hol."

As Rep. Frank tries to drum up support for his bill in Congress, the Massachusetts Legislature is considering an initiative to decriminalize possession of an ounce or less of marijuana. A person caught with an ounce or less would be fined but would not be charged with a criminal offense, which appears on employer background checks and is a disqualifying factor for receiving certain government benefits, such as subsidized housing and student financial aid.

If the state Legislature does not act on the initiative by May 6, supporters have until June 18 to get 11,000 signatures on a petition to put the initiative on the ballot in November. If they succeed, it would require a majority vote to pass.

Whitney A. Taylor, campaign manager for the Committee for Sensible Marijuana Policy, which drafted the Massachusetts initiative, said she supports Rep. Frank's proposal.

"We are very excited that Congressman Frank understands the need for more sensible and sound marijuana policies," Ms. Taylor said. "The policies in Massachusetts do more harm than good, and I think the congressman realizes that on a federal level, as well."

State Sen. Patricia D. Jehlen, D-Medford, is sponsoring her own bill that would decriminalize possessing an ounce or less of marijuana.

"I'm not saying it's OK, but it's not a criminal offense," she said. "It's a civil offense, but you don't get a criminal record and you don't use up court resources."

State Rep. Martin J. Walsh, D-Dorchester, who has led the opposition to marijuana decriminalization in Massachusetts, said he would instead favor adjusting laws for youths using al**hol and marijuana in order to protect their permanent records.

"People make mistakes," Rep. Walsh said. "I don't agree with them being penalized for an irresponsible decision."

Since 1973, 12 states, including Maine, have decriminalized marijuana in some form. A bill that would decriminalize possession of a quarter-ounce of marijuana passed the New Hampshire House, although the governor and Senate president have vowed to defeat it.

"Almost half of the ( U.S. ) population lives in states that have done this sort of thing," said Bill Downing, president of the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition. "Those states saved millions of dollars in law enforcement and marijuana usage rates did not go up as a result."

Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, pointed to those 12 states as proof of support for reforming drug laws. Mr. St. Pierre said there is widespread public support for decriminalizing marijuana and allowing for its medicinal use, although many still oppose its full legalization.

Americans are able to distinguish between decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana and the complete legalization of marijuana, making it like al**hol and to**cco, Mr. St. Pierre said.

Tom Riley, spokesman for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, said his agency would "oppose any changes that would make dangerous, addictive drugs widely available."

"Common sense shows that when you make something more available, people will use it," he said.

Mr. Riley said that proponents of marijuana decriminalization are "using medical marijuana as a back-door solution to legalization," and that marijuana is a more harmful drug than people realize. He said patients using medicinal marijuana are being used to invoke public sympathy.

"The state-level passage has been playing on people's good wills more than based on science," Mr. Riley said. "They go through the ballot process rather than the scientific process."

For the past 10 years, Rep. Frank has unsuccessfully filed legislation during each two-year congressional term to loosen marijuana laws. He has filed bills that would allow the unrestricted medicinal use of marijuana in states that have passed such laws, and he also has filed bills -- one as recently as January -- to repeal a law that prohibits college students who were convicted of drug offenses from receiving financial aid. None of the bills has made it onto the House floor for debate.

U.S. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., filed legislation in the Senate last month that would allow judges to decide whether students who were convicted of drug offenses can keep their financial aid.

Tom Angell, spokesman for Students for Sensible Drug Policy, a Washington-based lobbying group seeking to decriminalize marijuana, said more than 200,000 college students have lost financial aid in the past 10 years because of drug convictions.

Although Mr. Angell would not say whether he would support Rep. Frank's legislation until he sees the details of his proposal, he said he believes passing a law to reduce penalties for marijuana will "show a lot of momentum for reforming punitive drug policies."

"Congress will be on the record saying it doesn't make sense to punish people for what they're putting into their own body," Mr. Angell said.

Mr. St. Pierre said Rep. Frank's proposal does not promote the use of marijuana but instead encourages people who use it to consume the drug within reasonable limits.

"It will build consistency into drug policy that if you use something like cannabis, just like al**hol, you should largely be punished for the abuse of the substance, not the use of it," Mr. St. Pierre said.

"We all know there's a difference between use of al**hol and al**hol abuse."
NORML.ORG US: As Frank Prepares Marijuana Bill, States Make Own Efforts
 
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