A Question of Possession

September 17, 2008

Boston, MA — What’s wrong with a few joints? Nothing, if you ask the proponents of one of the worst ideas on the ballot this year.

Question 2 would make possession of up to an ounce of marijuana a civil offense, punishable by a $100 fine. A recent poll suggests that the question will win easily. Over 70 percent of voters in the poll backed it in a Channel 7/Suffolk University survey.

That isn’t a huge surprise. Public attitudes about marijuana use have clearly relaxed, to the point where a presidential candidate’s youthful dalliances with it have been a nonissue in the campaign. That doesn’t mean this should pass.

Money has poured in to support it, much of it from out of state. Billionaire George Soros, who has led the charge to decriminalize marijuana possession nationwide, has donated at least $400,000.

The major argument of the proponents is that enforcing marijuana laws is a waste of time and public resources. They have produced a report arguing, absurdly, that Massachusetts would save $29.5 million a year, if only cops would stop chasing pot smokers around.

They might have a point, if police officers were really doing that. But in fact, marijuana possession charges are almost always tacked onto more serious offenses. In 2007, not one person went to jail in Suffolk or Middlesex counties for marijuana possession alone. First offenders, by statute, get six months’ probation, after which the charge is dropped. “The well-financed proponents got a jump on providing misinformation to the public ranging from public health issues to law enforcement,” Middlesex District Attorney Gerard T. Leone said last week.

Prosecutors and police are up in arms about Question 2, and they are not alone. The Rev. Jeffrey Brown of the Boston TenPoint Coalition, who has spent years dealing with crime issues that spring from drug use, castigated the backers of Question 2 as out-of-touch suburbanites who have no clue about the drug problems in the neighborhoods he works in.

“I’ve heard that the legalization lobby has targeted Massachusetts because this is a liberal state,” Brown said. “What I need is someone to help me in the street, helping these young men and women get jobs and educations and rebuilding families. I don’t need a bunch of suburban folks asking what’s wrong with a little marijuana. It’s amazing that anyone would consider this.

“Does the average suburban person even know how many blunts you can get from an ounce? Twenty-eight – we’re not talking about a thimbleful.”

Whitney Taylor is running the campaign for Question 2. She argues that 7,500 people a year get criminal records because of marijuana possession.

“We’re not saying that people are going to jail for this,” she said. “We’re saying that arrests and bookings are a drain” on public resources. She said 11 states have passed similar laws, with no increase in drug use.

The arguments in favor of Question 2 are weak. If people are not going to jail for possession, what is the argument for making the law even weaker? Turning marijuana possession into a lesser offense than speeding will only encourage and embolden drug pushers and their customers. Why, exactly, is that a good idea? This is a bad solution to something that isn’t even a problem.

There will be a range of opinion on this, but I don’t like the fact that this campaign is being bankrolled and run by people who will never to have to deal with its consequences. Soros and his organization are based in New York; one of the biggest individual contributors locally is Woody Kaplan ($10,000, according to campaign finance records) of fashionable Commonwealth Avenue. It’s no accident that you won’t see many people in neighborhoods ravaged by drugs signing up for this cause. This is a classic limousine liberal movement.

The public pays so little attention to ballot questions that they have become the vehicle of choice for ideas that would never pass in the Legislature. This is one that should not fly under the radar.

Source: Boston Globe

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