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Creating a Sensible Marijuana Law

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ALMOST HALF of American adults have tried marijuana, and the number of people who use it regularly has increased to about 15 million. This expanding use of marijuana can no longer be dismissed as simply a youthful fad that can be eliminated through the war on drugs.

Still, marijuana arrests account for nearly 44 percent of all drug arrests in the United States. According to the Uniform Crime Report, nearly 830,000 people were arrested in 2006 on marijuana charges, nearly a 15 percent increase over 2005. Nine out of 10 were arrested for mere possession.

Despite the increasing threat of arrest, the growing demands of employers for urine tests, and the ubiquity of the misinformation purveyed by the US government and the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, the number of Americans who experiment with or regularly use this substance continues to grow. So many people have discovered its remarkably limited toxicity and its versatility as a medicine that 12 states have now adopted legislation or initiatives that allow for its medicinal use and 12 states have decriminalized it by reducing penalties for possession of small quantities to a fine, with no arrest or jail penalty.

Massachusetts is considering decriminalizing minor marijuana offenses, with both proposed legislation and a proposed voter initiative. An out-of-state grouphas been collecting signatures for the voter initiative. Despite my agreement with the goal of eliminating criminal penalties for minor marijuana offenses, I oppose the initiative as it has been drafted.

The initiative reduces the penalty for possession of up to 1 ounce of marijuana to a fine of $100, but it actually establishes a new offense. The sponsors should withdraw it and replace it with a more thoughtfully worded version.

The new offense is internal possession of marijuana metabolites. Anyone discovered to have any of these metabolites in his body fluids or hair would be prosecutable.

However, like many other chemicals that are fat-soluble, these metabolites are excreted slowly, often long after their capacity to exert any psychoactive effect has disappeared. For example, an individual who has smoked marijuana on a Saturday night might have a positive urine test when she reports for work on Monday morning even though there is no evidence that she is "high."

If she has used it every night, in much the same way others have a daily alcoholic drink after work, her urine would test positive for at least a month after the last smoke. Currently no such offense exists under Massachusetts law; an individual today cannot be charged with any offense simply because he has inactive THC metabolites in his system. The existence of these metabolites in the body does not signify impairment; their presence simply establishes a history of having used marijuana in the past.

A second flaw in the initiative that should be corrected is the definition of marijuana as limited to cannabis sativa that contains no more than 2.5 percent THC, the primary active ingredient in marijuana.

Most marijuana ranges from 8 to 15 percent THC, and any initiative must redefine marijuana as the flowers and leaves of the cannabis sativa plant without THC limitation. Instead, the drafters of the initiative have responded to this inadequate definition of marijuana by drafting language that would decriminalize up to an ounce of the far more potent pure THC, perhaps an unintended result of trying to make the initiative compatible with the present statute.

Overall, the wording makes the initiative defective and vulnerable, a vulnerability that would surely be exploited by the drug warriors as they attempt to build opposition to this proposal should it eventually make the ballot.

So let's reject this fatally flawed proposal and work with the Legislature for a well-drafted law that would effectively decriminalize the possession and use of marijuana by adults in Massachusetts. If that doesn't happen by early 2009, another well-drafted initiative, one that would truly free adults to use this drug responsibly, would be in order.

Dr. Lester Grinspoon, an emeritus associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, is author of "Marijuana Reconsidered" and coauthor of "Marijuana, the Forbidden Medicine."

Source: Boston Globe (MA)
Copyright: 2007 Globe Newspaper Company
Contact: letter@globe.com
Website: The Boston Globe Online - Boston.com
 
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