UP IN SMOKE
Pot, Politics and the Public. The Move to Decriminalize Marijuana.
Shelley doesn't want her real name used.
She's 40 years old, the mother of four, a full-time professional in a Worcester office. And a pot smoker.
Eleven years ago, she was going through a painful divorce and taking Zoloft to help her cope.
"It was awful. I didn't feel good, I didn't feel depressed, I didn't feel anything. My physician at the time said, 'Look, I'm not supposed to tell you this, but there is something that could help you.'"
He didn't "prescribe" marijuana, she says, but suggested there might be some benefits. Shelley came off the Zoloft and began smoking several nights a week out by the fire pit in her backyard, usually after 9 p.m. If it rained, she retreated to the garage.
The pot relaxes her, helps her sleep. She said she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder dating back to childhood, and the weed "re-sets me." She continues the ritual of a few nightly tokes, which she equates to the glass of wine someone else might drink after a long day.
There is one significant difference.
"I would lose everything if I got caught," she says, shaking her head. "For what? For smoking an herb that comes out of the earth."
Shelley has been writing checks to the Committee for Sensible Marijuana Policy ( CSMP ), the group promoting the passage of Question 2 on the Nov. 4 ballot. Question 2 would decriminalize the possession of an ounce or less of marijuana by replacing arrest and judicial processing with a system of civil penalties. That baggie of grass, so long as its weight stays beneath the magic number, would net the holder a $100 fine, and no permanent criminal record.
Whether or not marijuana should be legalized is a debate that has been waged in fits and starts since pot became the drug of choice for a new generation. Currently, 12 states have decriminalized marijuana at some level ( see sidebar ). Nevada was the most recent to decriminalize, in 2001.
Now it's Massachusetts' turn to wrestle with the question of whether the full force of the criminal justice system should be brought to bear on low-level marijuana offenses. Question 2 made it to the ballot in large part because of the financial backing of billionaire George Soros, who in 2007 contributed $400,000 to the ballot campaign. In 2000 Soros contributed heavily to a failed ballot question that would have softened penalties for manufacturing or distributing controlled substances.
Despite the heat generated between proponents and detractors, Question 2 has largely flown below the radar, subsumed by a highly charged presidential campaign, Wall Street woes and beetle invasions. It's not even the most controversial question on the Nov. 4 ballot: that title goes to Question 1, the repeal of the state income tax.
Still, while national leadership and pocketbook issues dominate the airwaves, both sides on the pot decriminalization issue are ramping up efforts to convince the public this is either the best or worst idea to come down the Mass Pike in a long time.
That's the amount CSMP pegs as the potential savings if the one-ounce law is passed. The figure comes from a 2002 study by Jeffrey A. Miron, Senior Lecturer on Economics at Harvard University ( updated to reflect 2008 values ), who with several studies on the topic under his belt has become something of a pied piper on decriminalizing marijuana.
Miron contends that tens of millions of dollars are being spent in law enforcement, judicial and corrections resources in connection with marijuana-related incidents. Resources, he says, that could be better deployed.
"This is a modest proposal," says CSMP spokesperson Whitney Taylor. "We're saying that $29.5 million should stay in public coffers to fight serious or violent crimes. Jeff's economic model shows that once a cop puts the cuffs on somebody, he's [the police officer] off the street. He gets paid to go to court ... there are a lot of law enforcement costs. We just think the money could be put to better use."
Taylor says the proposed law also means that someone arrested for a marijuana offense will not have his or her name listed permanently as part of CORI ( Criminal Offender Record Information ), as is presently the case. A CORI check reveals if a person has been arrested, even if the charges are dismissed. Such an arrest, Taylor insists, can be a lifelong barrier to employment, housing, coaching youth sports, becoming a foster or adoptive parent, or obtaining professional licensure.
"With Question 2, the penalty would fit the crime," Taylor says. "Those lifelong barriers would not be there.
"We don't promote or condone marijuana use," she adds. "This is a criminal justice issue to us." In the case of youthful offenders, Taylor says, the CSMP proposal brings parents or guardians into the loop immediately, since the citation is delivered directly to them. The offender is then required to complete a drug awareness course and community service.
"You put a kid in an orange jumpsuit picking up trash as his friends go by, that's an effective punishment," she says.
"A dopey smokescreen" is William Breault's favorite description of Question 2 ( his favorite term for Soros: "Sugar daddy of drug legalization" ). It pops up in the packet of anti-legalization literature he's been passing out. It crops up in conversation. It's the rallying cry he's using in his Sherman's March from the Berkshires to New Bedford to torch the arguments of his opponents. For months the director of the Main South Alliance for Public Safety has been visiting police chiefs, mayors and public officials of every grade to spread the message that decriminalizing possession of even small amounts of marijuana is a bad idea.
"If you lower the bar on use, then abuse will rise. If this passes, getting caught with an ounce will be like getting a speeding ticket," he says, noting that an ounce is the equivalent of about 40 joints.
Breault bristles at the suggestion that marijuana is not a gateway drug to harder stuff.
"I've seen it," he says. "I've lived with it. Through the years I've seen people [with drug problems] who started smoking a joint at age 12, and the fact is if they don't smoke that joint they have a 70 percent better chance of not moving on to harder drugs."
He cites a report by the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association that, in turn, pulls together studies done by organizations like the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the Office of National Drug Control Policy, that shows marijuana use has declined significantly among teenagers since 2001. Decriminalizing the drug, they insist, could reverse that downward trend.
One thing both sides seem to agree on -- although they don't acknowledge that they agree -- is that few people actually do prison time for possession of marijuana. Representatives from each side say it's not true that thousands are languishing in jails for pot possession while murderers and rapists roam free.
"Nobody goes to jail for simple possession," says Worcester District Attorney Joseph Early Jr., who has joined the other 10 D.A.s throughout the state to oppose Question 2. Early says possession is typically not a stand-alone charge, and is often clumped with other offenses like assault and battery or operating under the influence.
The D.A. touts his Diversion Program, which allows offenders ages 17 to 23 to do eight hours of community service, take a substance abuse counseling class online, and stay clean ( testing is done ), after which possession charges are dismissed. Early stresses that all this is done pre-arraignment, which keeps the charge off the offender's permanent record.
The catch: you only get one bite of the apple. Subsequent arrests are handled in standard fashion. Still, he notes, possession of an ounce or less results in a continued-without-finding for six months, and if there are no violations in that time, the person's record is sealed.
"We've got to look at it and say, 'Why are we doing this?'" Early says of Question 2. As a matter of public safety, it's a no-brainer, he believes, citing the incidence of motor vehicle and workplace accidents due to marijuana use.
Early and Breault note that the pot being smoked circa 2008 is a far cry from the stuff the baby boomers inhaled during the Summer of Love. Breault points to a study by the University of Mississippi's Potency Monitoring Project that found levels of THC -- the main psychoactive substance in cannabis -- in samples the university tested are more than double what they were in 1983 thanks to advanced growing methods. The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy also recently released a report that using marijuana increases the risk of developing mental disorders by 40 percent, and that teenagers who use are three times more likely to have suicidal thoughts than nonusers.
Taylor says opponents are throwing up red herrings to refute CSMP's arguments, especially regarding the amount of prison time, or lack of, for offenders.
"We've never said the prisons are full of people arrested for possession of marijuana. We know that's not true," she says. "If you look at the other states that have decriminalized marijuana, an ounce is about the median amount. This is a pragmatic course of action."
She contests the assertions of Breault and others that marijuana is a gateway to harder drugs.
"That's like saying every person who rides a bicycle is going to ride a motorcycle," Taylor says.
Not all local government officials oppose the relaxing of weed laws.
State Rep. Jim O'Day ( D-Worcester ) supports Question 2, and says the key is to educate voters that the measure is not a blanket attempt to legalize marijuana.
"If it was, I'd vote against it," he says. Until the CORI system can be reformed, a pot arrest "haunts someone for a long time. If you can keep them off of CORI and there is a fine associated with an offense, there is still a consequence to negative behavior."
O'Day, a former bar owner, says "alcohol is the true gateway drug."
"I've seen behavior in people drinking that would boggle your mind," he says. "I can't remember ever seeing the violence and rage in people who smoke marijuana that I've seen in people when they're drinking."
State Sen. Harriette Chandler ( D-Worcester ) offers the prevailing legislative view that the laws are working. The "current law is satisfactory," she says. "The district attorney and the police know how to implement them. The laws are there and I see no reason to change them."
For now, Shelley, will continue to quietly write checks in support of Question 2.
"Just saying pot is bad isn't enough," she says. "Saying I can't use it responsibly is not enough. I'm sorry, but people don't go from being potheads to being cokeheads because they like what pot does and they want more. They go from pot to coke, or something else, because they don't like the buzz they get from pot.
"Look, I'm involved in the community, I pay my taxes, my kids aren't troublemakers. I don't drive when I'm high. If this passes, I wouldn't change the precautions I take when it comes to smoking pot. It's still a pretty intimate act."
WHAT IT MEANS
If Question 2 passes, the new law would replace the criminal penalties for possession of one ounce or less of marijuana with civil penalties, to be enforced by issuing citations, and would exclude information regarding this civil offense from the state's criminal record information system. Offenders age 18 or older would be fined $100; those under 18 would also pay a fine of $100 and be required to complete a drug awareness program within one year of the offense. The program would include 10 hours of community service and at least four hours of instruction or group discussion about the use and abuse of marijuana and other drugs.
If the underage offenders don't complete the program, the fine could be increased to as much as $1,000, unless the offender showed an inability to pay, or an inability to participate in such a program. The offender's parents could also be held liable for the increased penalty. Anyone under 17 who fails to complete the program could be subject to a delinquency proceeding.
Under the proposed law, possessing an ounce or less of marijuana could not be grounds for state or local government entities imposing any other penalty, sanction or disqualifications, such as denying student financial aid, public housing, public financial assistance including unemployment benefits, the right to operate a motor vehicle, or the opportunity to serve as a foster or adoptive parent. The proposed law would allow local ordinances or bylaws that prohibit the public use of marijuana, and would not affect existing laws, practices, or policies concerning operating a motor vehicle or taking other actions while under the influence of marijuana, unlawful possession of prescription forms of marijuana, or selling, manufacturing, or trafficking in marijuana.
The money received from the new civil penalties would go to the city or town where the offense occurred.
. Summary from the Attorney General's Office
[sidebar By Andy Sullivan]
RALLY GOERS: IT'S HIGH TIME FOR CHANGE
"Vote yes" on Question 2, the Massachusetts Sensible Marijuana Initiative Policy, was the cry for thousands of supporters on Boston Common for the 19th annual Freedom Rally Sept. 20. With a mix of activists, supporters and hippies of all ages, the field was littered with acoustic guitars, games of hacky sack and a hazy cloud of smoke. It was a relatively peaceful gathering filled with live music and vendors. Worcester-area residents made the trip to Boston and found the event a unique experience.
"It's a positive environment," said Sean LeVoir, 20, of Worcester. "There's a lot of love going on around here.
"It's definitely not what I was expecting," he said. "I thought it would be some crazy festival and everyone would be smoking pot. There's really not that much weed-smoking going around. It's more for the cause, I think."
The event was co-sponsored by the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition ( MassCann ) and the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
Some felt the benefit of the rally was the chance to share their opinions about marijuana use in an open forum.
"If people get together, it'd be nice to see some changes," said John Jacobs, 17, of Holden. "I don't think it's bad for anyone, as long as you are responsible enough to control it."
LeVoir thinks Massachusetts could benefit from a change.
"Massachusetts tends to be a state that tries to impose laws on freedoms and keep people from doing what they want," said LeVoir. "People should be able to smoke weed if they want. There are a bunch of things that are much more addicting. Nicotine is at the top of the list, and you can buy that."
Police patrolled the area all afternoon; Six arrests were made. Steven Epstein, a MassCann founder, said he hopes people don't fall into the trap of perceiving the rally as a haven for slackers and troublemakers, but rather as a call for reform.
With Question 2 appearing on the ballot, this year's event took on more significance, Epstein said.
"If you take away the criminal aspect of [marijuana] and the forbidden fruit, kids have become less interested," he said.
The rally seemed to have the kind of impact Epstein was anticipating. Rally goers who were interviewed said they plan to make Question 2 a priority when they cast their vote. The new policy would be a $100 fine, without any further disciplinary action for possession of an ounce or less of marijuana.
"It's been passed in 11 other states," said Courtney Caramillo of Worcester. "Why couldn't it be successful here?"
WHAT OTHER STATES DO
Currently, 12 states have decriminalized marijuana at some level -- Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Oregon.
A sampling of the penalties:
New York issues a civil citation for the first two offenses of possessing 25 grams or less, and fines of $100 and $200 respectively. A third offense is a misdemeanor, which can result in five days incarceration and/or a fine of $250.
In Colorado, possession of less than 100 grams is considered a "minor misdemeanor," which does not create a public record.
Nebraska issues a civil citation and fine of $300 for a first offense of 1 ounce or less. There is also the possibility the offender may have to take a drug education course.
Pubdate: Thu, 25 Sep 2008
Source: Worcester Magazine (MA)
Page: Cover Feature - Image www.mapinc.org/images/UpinSmoke.jpg
Copyright: 2008 Worcester Publishing Ltd
Author: Jim Keogh
Cited: Question 2 http://sensiblemarijuanapolicy.org/
Bookmark: http://www.mapinc.org/find?161 (Marijuana - Regulation)