A bill that would impose fines -- not jail time -- for simple marijuana possession in Massachusetts has been approved by the General Court's Joint Mental Health and Substance Abuse Committee, the first step in a lengthy legislative process that could see the Bay State finally joining the ranks of states that have decided jailing pot-smokers is not worth it. Simple possession is currently considered a criminal offense punishable by up to six months in jail and a $500 fine.
Senate Bill 1151, sponsored by state Sen. Charles Shannon, would impose a $250 civil fine on adults in possession of less than an ounce of weed without the possibility of a jail sentence. The parents or guardians of juveniles caught in possession would be notified and the citation would be delivered directly to them.
Marijuana has already been decriminalized in 11 other states. Most of those laws were passed in the 1970s, but for Massachusetts lawmakers it is a case of better late than never. In a 2002 study, Harvard economist Dr. Jeffrey Miron estimated that decriminalizing marijuana in the state would save taxpayers $24.3 million in arrest and booking costs alone. He did not factor in revenues generated by a system of fines.
"The committee is reflecting the attitude of the majority of Bay Staters -- that personal possession of marijuana should not lead to a criminal record that will damage the rest of someone's life," said committee chair Rep. Ruth Balser (D-Newton). "It is the goal of the Mental Health & Substance Abuse Committee to have drug abuse seen in a treatment context, not a criminal justice context."
"We must be realistic about the differences between various illicit substances and the dangers they present to our communities," said Committee Chairman Senator Steven Tolman (D-Boston). "It is time the legislature had an honest debate on marijuana and our criminal justice system and I look forward to participating in that debate."
"It is wonderful to see Massachusetts legislators taking this step toward a sensible debate on marijuana control policies," said Whitney A. Taylor, Executive Director of the Drug Policy Forum of Massachusetts. "We are moving away from policies based on stigma and punishment, to those based on science, efficacy and human dignity."
While there are still legislative hurdles to overcome, the committee vote is a significant milestone, Taylor said. "This is the first time in over a decade that a Massachusetts legislative committee has voted in favor of civil fines for marijuana possession," she noted.