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Holmes: Common Sense On Marijuana

Herb Fellow

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Now that we've settled the casino thing, anybody for a joint? Marijuana decriminalization is the next hot-button social issue moving through the state Legislature. But unlike casino gambling, marijuana reform can't be stopped by House Speaker Sal DiMasi. If the Legislature doesn't enact it, voters will see it on the November ballot.

The initiative is simple. Possession of marijuana is now a criminal offense, punishable by up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $500. A single joint can get you a criminal record, a CORI file that can keep you from getting housing or a job and that makes you ineligible for a student loan.

The initiative proposes reducing possession of less than an ounce of marijuana to a civil offense, punishable by a fine of up to $100. The laws concerning manufacturing or trafficking in pot wouldn't change, nor would the law against driving under the influence of marijuana. Juveniles would be fined, sentenced to perform community service and attend a drug education course.

Sound radical? It isn't. Eleven states already consider possession a civil offense, including New York, Maine, Nevada and even Mississippi. In those places, lower penalties have been in place for as long as 30 years. Several studies could find no significant difference in marijuana use in those states as opposed to states with criminal penalties.

Decriminalization has public support, with 72 percent of respondents in a 2002 CNN/Time Magazine poll in favor of fines, but no jail time, for marijuana possession. Over the last eight years, non-binding decriminalization proposals have won voter approval in 30 Massachusetts legislative districts - with an average "Yes" vote of 62 percent.

But reefer madness persists in the dusty corners of the State House.

"I do not know a thing about this piece of legislation," Rep. Martin Walsh, D-Boston, told the Judiciary Committee at a hearing on the initiative earlier this month, "but it doesn't make sense. It's not good policy." Walsh isn't going to let ignorance stop him. "I intend on doing everything in my power as an elected official to fight this legislation," he said, according to a State House News Service account.

That's the kind of thinking that has kept the war on drugs going since the Nixon administration. There are two types of politicians: Those who think all drugs are equally evil - except for alcohol of course, without which all life would be drained from Beacon Hill - and those who know marijuana is no big deal but are scared to death they'll be branded soft on drugs by the likes of Martin Walsh.

Then there's Barney Frank, the exception to the rule. Back in the 1970s, when he was a Massachusetts state representative, Frank filed a bill that would have rescinded the criminal penalties for simple possession of marijuana.

Now Frank is one of the most powerful members of the U.S. Congress. As chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, he has big issues on his plate, like the home foreclosure crisis and the regulatory lapses that brought down Bear Stearns, threatens other Wall Street giants and is plunging the nation into recession.

But Frank is also filing legislation that would repeal all federal laws against the possession of small amounts of marijuana. "It's time for the politicians in this one to catch up to the public," Frank told Bill Maher on the comic's late-night talk show. "The notion that you lock people up for smoking marijuana is pretty silly."

Silly and costly. According to the Committee for Sensible Marijuana Policy (CSMP), the group behind the referendum effort, last year 7,500 Massachusetts residents were saddled with criminal records for possession of marijuana.

But they aren't the only ones who pay for it. Harvard economist Dr. Jeffrey Miron has calculated that taxpayers spend $29.5 million a year just to arrest and process offenders caught with an ounce or less of pot.

Frank told Maher he plans to name his legislation the "Make Room for Serious Criminals" bill.

Frank isn't the only politician talking common sense on marijuana. In the last two legislative sessions, the House Committee on Mental Health and Substance Abuse has voted favorably on bills filed by Rep. Pat Jehlen, D-Somerville, on which the ballot question are based. But the bills never made it to the floor of the House. Only one vote counts in that chamber, and Speaker DiMasi isn't onboard.

That's why this is headed to the ballot. CSMP has already collected more than 81,000 signatures in support of the initiative. If the Legislature fails to enact the law by May 6, the organization needs to collect 11,099 more to put it on the ballot in the fall. With help from billionaire philanthropist George Soros, CSMP should have no problem clearing that hurdle.

Then the Bay State will have a lively debate, whether the politicians are comfortable with it or not. They weren't comfortable taking up gay marriage until the Supreme Judicial Court forced the issue, and most legislators did their best to avoid taking a stand on casinos.

Debating marijuana will be tricky. Some media types over at the Boston Herald, in the juvenile end of the talk radio dial and among lifestyle-obsessed local TV news anchors, can't seem to talk about marijuana policy without giggling.

But getting busted is no laughing matter, and this is a topic a lot of voters are familiar with. A federal agency reported a few years ago that 12 percent of metro Boston residents had smoked marijuana within the past month. Millions more have tried it sometime in their lives.

They knew they were breaking the law, and they know the law didn't stop them from doing it. Come November, they'll get to help decide whether that offense is serious enough to result in a jail term or a criminal record that lasts a lifetime.

Source: MetroWest Daily News
Copyright: 2008, MetroWest Daily News
Contact: Rick Holmes, opinion editor of the MetroWest Daily News
Website: Holmes: Common sense on marijuana - Framingham, MA - The MetroWest Daily News
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