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N. H. Debates Marijuana


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Tomassi, a Windham resident, is testifying in support of a New Hampshire bill to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana. If passed, people caught with a quarter ounce of pot would receive a ticket and a maximum $200 fine.

Attempts to legalize marijuana have failed in the past. But last week, a House subcommittee passed this bill 3-1 with some amendments.

The measure still has a long way to go before it becomes law, and David Welch, R-Kingston, predicts this new attempt to reform marijuana laws will also go up in smoke.

Yet, he was one of the three who voted for the bill. Welch wants lawmakers to debate the issue and said if the bill has a chance of passage, it would make for a livelier discussion.

"We haven't had the debate in a long time," Welch said.

The move to debate marijuana use comes from the plight of teens who smoked pot in high school and find out later a drug conviction has disqualified them for college grants, he said.

Ideally, Welch said, the publicity about the bill will "hit the streets" and young people experimenting with marijuana will hear about the consequences and not use drugs. Meanwhile, lawmakers can consider if New Hampshire should join other states, including Maine, that have reduced the penalties.

"We need to have a good discussion and find out if this is something we want to do," he said.

So far, 12 states have decriminalized marijuana, according to Matt Simon, executive director of the New Hampshire Coalition for Common Sense Marijuana Policy. He called the vote evidence of "growing consensus among legislators that New Hampshire's penalties for simple marijuana possession are unnecessarily harsh."

Simon, who has taught college classes, said he witnessed the impact on his students, their families, and the youths' future employment prospects.

"It's a case of the cough syrup being worse than the cough," Simon said.

These teens do not deserve to be followed through life by a criminal record, he added.

Tomassi, who now teaches economics at Bentley College, sees the problem from both an economic and law enforcement perspective.

Legalization would not end the nation's drug problem but it would stop the violence, he said. Last year, 1.8 million people were charged with drug crimes, Tomassi said.

"You would like to think most of them were major drug dealers," he said. But most were charged with marijuana possession. Tomassi said drug dealers fear the legalization of drugs, which would dry up their profits and put them out of business. He draws a parallel between the current situation and crime during Prohibition.

Most police officers, however, are telling lawmakers that reducing the penalty for marijuana would send the wrong message to teens, said Ellen Neilsen, D-Claremont. Neilsen said police testimony is taken seriously, but she still believes the war on drugs has been a failure.

"We need to try a new approach," she said, and consider separating marijuana from more serious drugs, such as heroin.

John Tholl, R-Whitefield, also voted not to kill the bill and, like Welch, wants a debate on the issues.

"I have mixed feelings about the whole thing," said Tholl, who is a police chief. But he pointed out that the courts are treating marijuana possession cases more like violations.

"To be honest, most convicted people pay a fine," he said. "What kind of message does that send to kids?" Tholl also said he voted for the bill to make sure it was amended.

The original version would have decriminalized possession of 11/4 ounces of marijuana. That's now a felony, Tholl said, noting he would not favor seeing it reduced to a violation.

Source: Eagle-Tribune, The (MA)
Copyright: 2008 The Eagle-Tribune
Contact: letters@eagletribune.com
Website: Home - EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA
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