Residents In Boxford 18th Essex District May Cast Their Vote

Advocates of change in the Commonwealth's marijuana laws have not let their
relative success in the 2000 election go up in smoke. Instead they've plowed
on, and have planted four different non-binding public policy questions
about pot laws in 20 different state representative districts for this
fall's election.

Boxford voters in Precinct 2, now part of the new 18th Essex Representative
District which includes parts of Andover, Georgetown, Haverhill, Methuen,
and North Andover, will be voting Nov. 5 on a public policy ballot question
that asks if possession of marijuana should be a civil violation instead of
a crime.

In the 2000 election, 64 percent of voters in all of Boxford, then in the
4th Essex District, said they would be in favor of decriminalizing
possession of pot for personal use.

"It's worth a try to decriminalize marijuana," said Boxford Police Chief
Gordon Russell in an interview this week. He said he has given a great deal
of thought to the issue.

"As a law enforcement officer I don't approve of jamming a person up for his
whole life, legally speaking, for possession of a marijuana joint," he said.

He cited cases of people 40 or 50 years old who are still having their
youthful mistakes "thrown in their faces" for possession of pot, which until
the early 1970's was a felony, not a misdemeanor as it is today. He does not
in any way advocate marijuana use, however.

The Non-Binding Question

The wording of the 2002 non-binding ballot question is the same as in 2000:
"Shall the state representative from this district be instructed to
introduce and vote for legislation making possession of marijuana a civil
violation, like a traffic ticket instead of a criminal offense, and
requiring the police to hold a person under 18 who is cited for possession
until the person is released to a parent or legal guardian or brought before
a judge? " Reducing marijuana possession to a civil offense could save
taxpayers millions of dollars otherwise wastefully spent on arresting,
prosecuting, defending, and punishing marijuana users, according to Attorney
Steve Epstein of Georgetown, who gathered signatures to put the question on
the ballot.

"Marijuana use can be sufficiently discouraged, like speeding on our roads,
by citation and civil fines," Epstein wrote in a prepared statement. He
pointed out that decriminalization is not the same as legalization.

"The anticipated legislation would not disturb current law prohibiting the
distribution or growing of marijuana, or operation of motor vehicles under
the influence of marijuana," he said.

Epstein is a founding member of the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition,
which is affiliated with the National Organization for the Reform of
Marijuana Laws. According to the organization's Web site, eleven states have
already partially decriminalized possession of marijuana.

The coalition's efforts in 2000 led to ballot questions on decriminalizing
marijuana that garnered the support of about two-thirds of voters in the
districts in which they were introduced. This year four questions will be
asked in 20 districts around the state, including one in western
Massachusetts that asks if growing pot for personal use should be allowed.

Epstein argues that not prosecuting pot smokers would result in greater
public safety because police officers would be freed from the tasks of
booking, writing reports and appearing in court for low-level offenders, and
would thus have more time to spend "on the street." He says we will live in
a safer society when probation officers can focus on rehabilitating people
who have "committed crimes against persons and property."

Supporters of a "yes" vote on the ballot question call marijuana reform a
moral issue, saying it is wrong that the current law makes otherwise
law-abiding citizens and sick people who use marijuana medicinally into
criminals. They argue that much harm is done to families when a breadwinner
gets a criminal record, or a student becomes ineligible for federally
guaranteed student loans, instead of paying a civil fine for possession of

How would the candidates vote?

The prospective legislators in 18th Essex District differ in their approach
to the decriminalization of marijuana if voters say yes to Ballot Question

Kathy Sachs (R-Georgetown) said, "If the majority of the voters favor this,
I'd go along because I believe in the citizen referendum process." She said
she has not spoken with law enforcement officials about the ballot question,
but makes the point, "We spend a lot of time making arrests that take more
time than issuing a ticket. We feel the strain in a growing town. If it
would free up officers' time, there's something to be said for it."

Al DePietro (I-Georgetown) said he would support legislation limiting the
amount of pot someone could possess.

"If it's small amounts, it should be treated like that, with police giving a
ticket," he said. "But if it's anything to do with drug dealing, it should
be a criminal offense."

Barbara L' Italien (D-Andover) has still another take on the subject.

"I honestly think there are far more important things for the legislature to
deal with," she said. "And it is non-binding," she added. Although she is in
favor of the medicinal use of marijuana, and she understands the intent of
supporters who feel that the courts are overburdened, she said, "I'd be
worried that we might be sending the wrong message to kids, who are apt to
want to try it anyway, but who might be more apt to try it if all they'd get
is a slap on the wrist."

Pubdate: Wed, 23 Oct 2002
Source: Tri-Town Transcript (MA)
Copyright: 2002, Tri-Town Transcript