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Changes Sought In Marijuana Laws

Rocky Balboa

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It's not an easy question to answer. Although Georgetown lawyer Steven Epstein is an emphatic and public supporter of legalizing marijuana, he gets a little evasive when asked about his own recreational use of the drug. "I have used marijuana in the past," he said. "And I have liked it." A boisterous man with a pile of wild brown curls, the 51-year-old Epstein noted that, if he answered any other way, he'd be declaring himself a criminal. "It doesn't seem logical to me," he said. Possessing marijuana "should be a matter of choice."

It may very well be - at least in Massachusetts - if three initiatives backed by local reform groups make it onto this year's ballot. Now being mulled by the Legislature, two of the measures propose that marijuana in amounts of less than an ounce be decriminalized, so that people found in possession face just a civil fine. The third recommends that the drug be allowed for medical use.

Members of the Committee for Sensible Marijuana Policy and the Georgetown-based Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition - the latter of which Epstein and roughly 200 other members are actively involved in - collected 80,372 signatures in 350 of the state's 351 cities and towns to get the questions on the ballot. At least 66,593 were required for the initiatives to be considered.

Once certified by the secretary of state, the measures were passed on to the Legislature, which has until May 6 to act on them. If lawmakers reject the initiatives or fail to act, the groups will try to gather another 20,000 signatures by June 18 to get the initiatives on the November ballot. Opponents can petition the Supreme Judicial Court to disqualify the questions.

If the questions make it onto the ballot, they would require approval from a majority of voters and, if passed, would go into effect on Dec. 4, 30 days after the election.

Epstein and other proponents are confident the questions will become law. They say legalization is long overdue. Nonbinding questions dealing with decriminalization and medical marijuana have appeared on the ballot more than a dozen times in various districts since 2000, and House and Senate bills dealing with those same topics have cropped up at least three times since 2005.

"I shouldn't be considered a criminal to have my choice," said 44-year-old Bill Bohns of Salem, a member of MassCann who admitted to smoking regularly since 1989, the year he says he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. "As long as I'm not harming others, I should be able to do it."

Many who take the other side of the argument, however, say legalizing the drug could foster a dangerous, chaotic environment.

Although marijuana might seem harmless, it can impair users' coordination, balance, and sense of time and distance, thus creating a "direct link" between use and car crashes, according to the Essex district attorney's office.

Workplace safety could also be compromised: The rate of industrial accidents among marijuana users is more than 50 percent higher than among nonusers, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
"If you see an increase in marijuana use, you're going to see an increase in incidents, particularly accidents," said Everett Police Chief Steven Mazzie.

But cannabis proponents say its use doesn't rise with decriminalization; they point to studies published in the British Journal of Psychiatry and by the National Academy of Sciences that have found little evidence to support that.

In fact, many backers of legalization say the state could save substantial money by decriminalizing. According to a report compiled by Harvard University economics lecturer Jeffrey Miron, doing so would save millions in police and court costs.

Over the past few decades, 12 states, including Maine, New York, Ohio, North Carolina, Mississippi, California and Alaska, have opted for decriminalization, according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Legislators in New Hampshire and Vermont are also mulling that option.

Epstein, who has been behind legalization efforts for 35 years, argues that the drug is already "de facto decriminalized" in the Massachusetts. The attorney, who occasionally represents clients who have been charged with marijuana possession, said most of them end up with minimal fines and short probation sentences.

"Marijuana arrests [involving] handcuffs and a trip to the station are less frequent," he said.

Mazzie confirmed that. Officers in Everett encounter marijuana users and sellers on a regular basis, but they don't always arrest them. Most times, the officers use their discretion, especially when dealing with juveniles and people possessing small amounts.

Still, legalization is a different matter, he said, especially because it could set a precedent. "I'd be concerned that it may be a slippery slope," he said, noting that proponents might eventually try to legalize cocaine or heroin.

But hold the Cheech and Chong references, Epstein said.

"I've seen people who were totally, totally blasted out of their minds 24/7 and, for whatever reason, couldn't keep their lives together," he said, noting those people need help. However, he added, "The people I know whose marijuana use is their downfall is nil."

He pointed to movies such as "The Big Chill" or "Dazed and Confused," as providing accurate portrayals of typical marijuana use: normal people having a good time.

During the Cannabis Reform Coalition's recent board of directors meeting at TGI Fridays in Newton, he motioned around the room to note the varied ages and socioeconomic statuses of attendees.

Most of the 17 members were men - some with gray hair, some balding, some aging hippies with ponytails, some younger guys with baseball caps and piercings. Tall flasks of beer lined the table at which they sat; at one point, they raised their drinks in a toast "to liberty, my friend."

This is a "war on people's choice of altering their consciousness," said Epstein, a father of three who is as apt to quote John Adams as song lyrics by The Kinks.

Still, he insists, his support isn't just so people can legally bend reality. He believes the government could benefit from regulating and taxing the drug - at $3.50 a gram - and allowing scientists to further study hemp as it pertains to bio-fuel and medicine.

Bohns says he's a testament to the medicinal benefits of marijuana, saying it helped him "get up and get going" after radiation therapy for his cancer.

And since then, smoking marijuana has helped improve his mood. With a smile, he said, "I've been told my outlook on life is right up there."

Source: Boston Globe
Author: Taryn Plumb, Globe Correspondent
Copyright: 2008 Globe Newspaper Company
Website: The Boston Globe Online - Boston.com
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