Should Pot Be Criminal Offense in Massachusetts?

July 17, 2008

Massachusetts — Though it would still be illegal, smoking marijuana in Massachusetts won’t be a crime later this year if voters approve a statewide ballot initiative in November.

The Committee for Sensible Marijuana Policy began in the fall of 2007 petitioning the state Legislature to make the punishment for possession of marijuana a civil infraction.

Currently, a person caught with marijuana faces up to six months in jail and up to a $500 fine, regardless of his or her age.

If the initiative passes, offenders 18 or older possessing one ounce or less would forfeit the marijuana and face a civil penalty of $100.

For offenders 18 years and under, parents or legal guardians would be notified. Offenders would also have to complete a program developed by the Department of Youth Services including 10 hours of community service and at least four hours of group discussion about the use and abuse of marijuana. If an offender 18 years and under fails to complete these requirements within a year, the fine increases to $1,000, and the person could be subject to a delinquency hearing.

Whitney Taylor, campaign manager, started the initiative process because it seemed like a good time to move forward.

“In the past there have been 30 non-binding questions and they have passed by an average win of 65 percent,” she said. “So when the public supports it and the Legislature doesn’t, this is the time to move forward.”

The committee needed 11,099 certified and validated signatures of registered voters in Massachusetts to have the question put on the ballot.

MassCann, the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition, the Massachusetts chapter of NORML, the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws, supports the initiative.

“MassCann has taken a vote and supports the initiative,” said Bill Downing, president of the Massachusetts chapter. “Decriminalizing is a step toward rational means of regulation of adult use.”

Area legislators have some concerns.

“I’ve had quite a bit of conversation with my colleagues, and I am concerned about marijuana being a gateway drug,” said Rep. Pam Richardson, D-Framingham, who sits on the Mental Health and Substance Abuse Committee. “I’m not 100 percent convinced reducing the penalty for possession of marijuana is a good idea at this time, however, I am keeping my mind open.”

“I haven’t read the question thoroughly,” Sen. Scott Brown, R-Wrentham, said. “Conceptually, I haven’t supported it in the past, and definitely will not be supporting it in the future.”

Though regulating adult use may be gaining traction in the minds of some, Ashland Police Chief Scott Rohmer thinks marijuana usage is intolerable.

“I would oppose (the initiative),” he said. “It’s an illegal substance and that’s how it should stay.”

Rohmer went on to say that Ashland Police see how drugs affect people’s lives and that when dealing with drugs, punishments should be harsh.

However, some residents had a different point of view.

“I think it’s a good idea,” said Sara Hougaboom of Natick. “Not to sound like a hippie, but it’s an herbal thing…and alcohol is just as bad, if not worse.”

“It’s got pros and cons,” said Jerry Gallant, of Framingham, of the decriminalization idea.

While he admitted the drug can have medicinal uses, Gallant believed there needed to be strict controls, like a doctor’s prescription, on how the drug might be used.

“But if it helps people, fine,” he said. “I don’t see anything wrong with it.”

“It shouldn’t be a crime. It doesn’t do anything, and it couldn’t do any worse than alcohol,” said Bernard Ellis, 82, of Ashland.

Anne DiVittorio of Milford said she was against it, citing the gateway drug argument.

“I see too many horror stories with it. For a lot of people, not everybody, it leads to (other problems).”

The 11 Massachusetts district attorneys oppose the initiative as well.

Middlesex District Attorney Gerry Leone said in a statement, “The issue of decriminalizing marijuana is a slippery slope and sends the wrong message to our children. Today, marijuana is more potent than ever, with nine times the level of (Tetrahydrocannabinol) than levels found in strains of the drug three decades ago.

Compounding this is the fact that users of marijuana are 10 times more likely to be injured, or injure others, in automobile crashes. With young people using and abusing alcohol and other legal drugs at troubling rates, to add another element to this already dangerous equation would be extremely detrimental, irresponsible, and hazardous to our community as a whole.”

Others did not see the issue as so black and white.

“I’m so uncertain. I don’t think it’s necessarily a good thing to provide more ways for people to get in trouble, but I’m undecided,” said Kathy Bogue, 46, of Framingham.

“I’m honestly neither for it nor against it,” said Matt Donovan, 22, of Framingham.

Some organizations, such as Mothers Against Destructive Decisions, have not formed a formal opinion yet, but a spokesman for the Massachusetts chapter, David DeIuliis, said MADD acknowledges driving under the influence of drugs impairs a person’s ability to drive, and that in some cases, drunken driving crashes also involve some level of drug impairment.

If the initiative passes in the November election, the new laws will be in effect on Dec. 4, 2008.

Staff reporter Peter Reuell and correspondent Ashley Studley contributed to this report.

Source: Milford Daily News, The (MA)


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