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Should Marijuana Be Decriminalized?


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Boston, MA -- State Sen. Patricia Jehlen thinks the state is wasting time and resources and unnecessarily harming people over small amounts of marijuana.

The Somerville Democrat wants to make possession of less than an ounce of marijuana a civil, rather than a criminal, offense. She is sponsoring a bill that would do just that. "I think the public supports this idea, and the public wants the commonwealth's money to be spent more effectively," she said this week.

Her bill is now under review. It got a State House hearing earlier this month at the Bulfinch hearing chamber, which was jammed to capacity with legislators, the media and proponents of the idea.

Members of local motorcycle gangs in favor of decriminalization wore leather vests over shirts and ties as they shook hands with others who showed up in favor of the legislation.

Jehlen said public support for decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana is widespread and should not be ignored. In the senator's own district, 66 percent of those who expressed their preference in a referendum said they favor the idea.

Jehlen took up the issue of marijuana decriminalization when she found out that a constituent's husband was dying of stage-four melanoma and was only able to tolerate his treatments by using medical marijuana.

She said she is also concerned about the creation of criminal records for minor drug offenses that may prevent people from getting jobs and in other ways haunt them the rest of their lives.

"Every time a bill like this has gone to referendum in Massachusetts, it has passed," Jehlen said.

Jeffrey Miron, a professor of economics at Harvard who testified at the hearing, published a report last year analyzing the budgetary effects of marijuana decriminalization. Miron estimated that law enforcement would save about $29.5 million annually if the bill became law.

The report also includes data that suggests there has been no measurable increase in marijuana use in states and countries that have already decriminalized marijuana.

Using arrest data from Brockton and Barnstable, Miron said roughly one third of marijuana possession arrests involve only one charge. Those arrests were either for possession alone, or for possession that was discovered after an individual had been detained for a civil offense, like a traffic violation.

In 2006, about 1.9 percent - or 2,474 - of the 130,219 arrests in the commonwealth were for one-charge, marijuana-related offenses. Miron said those arrests would have been unnecessary under the decriminalization bill.

Miron did not estimate how state revenue would be affected by the use of a $100 civil fine for marijuana possession under one ounce versus current fines, which can go as high as $500. Currently, many offenders do not pay the fine. The possibility of that trend continuing makes any revenue changes difficult to predict.

Miron thinks the move to decriminalize marijuana is worth making.

"I support this bill because I think it is bad policy to criminalize marijuana, or any other drug," Miron said. "Anything that moves in this direction is a positive step, although in this case, a small step."

The argument over what is bad policy spurred passionate rebukes from opponents of the bill in the Legislature.

State Rep. Martin Walsh, D-Dorchester, blasted decriminalization supporters during his testimony at the March 18 hearing. While he had not read the current bill itself, he addressed general concerns about how marijuana affects urban communities like his district.

"My community is among those hit hardest by people using drugs," Walsh said. "There is no one sitting in our jails today who has been arrested for an ounce of marijuana. I don't think the bill makes sense, and I don't think it's good policy."

Walsh argued that marijuana is a gateway drug and that allowing the possession of small amounts of marijuana would be like allowing people to carry a small amount of heroin or OxyContin.

"I hope this legislation does not go anywhere, and I intend to do everything in my power as an elected official to fight this," he said.

Walsh said his stand is a matter of conscience, and he knows that not all of his constituents share his view. He acknowledged at the State House hearing, that in a decriminalization referendum 57 percent of those from his district who voted did so in favor of decriminalization.

Jehlen, the bill's sponsor, said she thinks her fellow legislators are "nervous" about coming out in support of the bill because they are afraid of being criticized for advocating drug use. She said decriminalizing marijuana would allow the criminal justice system to better use its resources fighting more serious crimes.

"This bill does not say it's OK to smoke pot," Jehlen said. "What it does is enforce our drug laws more effectively."

The Legislature has until May 6 to send the initiative to the governor.

Source: Daily News Transcript (Needham, MA)
Copyright: 2008 Daily News Transcript
Contact: bedwards@cnc.com
Website: Homepage - Norwood, MA - The Daily News Transcript
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