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Massachusetts Aims For Marijuana Decriminalization in November

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #530)
Drug War Issues

Eleven states have decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana, leaving those busted to face only tickets and fines instead of a criminal record and possible jail time. But most of them decriminalized in the 1970s, with Nevada being the most recent addition to the list in 2001. This year, thanks to a carefully-crafted initiative campaign by the Committee for Sensible Marijuana Policy (CSMP), which follows two years of groundwork-laying by local activists, Massachusetts may be the next state to take the step.

Last year, CSMP drafted a decrim initiative and gathered more than 80,000 valid signatures. Now, in accordance with Massachusetts law, the initiative is before the legislature, which can either pass it, offer a competing version up to the voters in November, or do nothing and let voters vote on the initiative itself in November.

According to CSMP, the initiative (read its full text here) would:

  • Amend the current criminal statutes so that adults possessing an ounce or less of marijuana for personal use would be charged with a civil infraction and fined $100. Currently marijuana possession can draw six months in jail and a $500 fine, plus a wide range of "collateral consequences" continuing long after.

  • Remove the threat of a Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) report for minor marijuana possession charges. Criminal records can haunt people when applying for jobs for the rest of their lives.
  • Maintain current penalties for selling, growing, and trafficking marijuana, as well as the prohibition against driving under the influence of marijuana.
  • Save Massachusetts approximately $24.3 million per year in law enforcement resources that are currently wasted on low-level marijuana possession arrests, according to a 2002 report by Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron.

While the initiative had a March 18 hearing before the Joint Committee on the Judiciary with a number of high-powered proponents, it is unlikely the legislature will act on it, leaving the voters to decide. That may be for the best, said Sen. Patricia Jehlen (D-Middlesex), who sponsored decrim legislation on which the initiative is based. While the Jehlen-sponsored SB1121 managed to win approval in committee, it has not gotten any further, nor has a similar bill, SB 1011, supported by the local activists of MassCann, the local affiliate of NORML.

An initiative will fare better with the public than in the legislature for a couple of reasons, Jehlen said. "It's not a big issue for many legislators," she pointed out, "and members are reluctant to take votes they think might be misunderstood by the public."

But before that can happen, CSMP will have to go back to the voters for another round of signature-gathering as required by Massachusetts law, explained committee head Whitney Taylor. Under that law, no one who signed petitions during the first round of signature gathering can sign a petition during the second round. Still, Taylor predicted no problems.

"I'm very confident we can come up with the required number of signatures," she said. "We have a lot of public support, we've been doing a lot of volunteer recruiting, and we've been working closely with SSDP chapters -- a bunch have just opened in the Boston area. There is a really great synergy going on there," she said.

"But while we have the enthusiasm of youth, we are also seeing a lot of buy-in from the broader public policy and advocacy community," said Taylor. "Massachusetts has the largest number of nonprofits per capita of any state, and these people are very comfortable in their political roles. There are lots of criminal and juvenile justice people who think our money could be better spent. It's great to see the support we're gathering at this early stage. I know we will make the ballot," she flatly predicted.

The initiative did have some early hurdles to pass. Last fall saw disagreement over aspects of the initiative language, particularly around whether it was wise to include marijuana in one's bodily fluids in the definition of marijuana possession and whether that could create a fine where it doesn't exist now. Some activists, such as NORML founder and current legal counsel Keith Stroup, worried that the language could become a precedent for other states to follow. Currently only one of them, South Dakota, defines a criminal offense of internal possession.

Taylor and initiative lawyers countered that there is conflicting case law on whether internal possession is already a criminal offense in Massachusetts that could draw a more severe punishment, or collateral consequences such as loss of college aid or problems in custody proceedings, and said the purpose of that language was to plug those holes by setting the same $100 fine as for external possession. They also argued that police can't take a bodily fluid sample without probable cause, which they say makes an internal possession penalty theoretical. Ultimately, all the major marijuana reform forces in the state, including NORML and MassCann, decided to support the initiative.

MassCann has been promoting the decrim cause in Massachusetts for years, and can point to some admirable achievements. At times working alone, at times working with the Drug Policy Forum of Massachusetts, the local activists managed to get non-binding questions on medical marijuana or decrim on the ballot in dozens of representative districts around the state. The results of those contests have demonstrated strong support for marijuana law reform in the Bay State.

"We never lost a ballot question," said MassCann treasurer Steve Epstein. "We did them in 2000, 2002, and 2004, and never lost, and we averaged 63%. We've also been working the legislature on reform there, but progress has been slow."

A successful decrim initiative would serve the same purpose as the decrim bills currently before the legislature, said Epstein. "Any of them will result in police not being able to arrest people for simple possession, all would result in people not getting CORIs, and all would save the police time and money. The police here will look the other way. They do that half the time already."

CSMP is honing its arguments as it looks forward to the fall campaign. "We are spending almost $30 million a year to arrest and book marijuana possession offenders," said Taylor. "And that's a conservative estimate. That money should stay in police coffers."

In addition to the economic costs, the campaign will highlight the costs of a marijuana conviction to young people. "We are seeing about 7,500 marijuana possession arrests a year, and that means 7,500 CORI reports, and that means opening people up to being rejected by landlords and employers, losing access to student loans and professional licenses, and all of that," Taylor said.

While opponents of marijuana law reform often cry that it will "send the wrong message" to the kids, Taylor said that is exactly backwards. "The wrong message to send to children is that if you make a mistake, we'll punish you for the rest of your life," she said. "With our initiative, whether this was just youthful experimentation or a sign of an actual problem, the consequences for law-breaking are immediate and done with, and that's more fair than the law currently is."

Now, the stage is set. Massachusetts voters have had nearly a decade to get accustomed to the notion of marijuana law reform, and the legislature, despite its inertia, is nibbling at the edges. Prominent Bay Staters are coming on board, fundraising is underway, and proponents are itching to take it to the ballot because they think they can win.

"The public supports it by about a two-to-one margin every time it's on the ballot. I filed my bill because of a vote like that in my district," said Sen. Jehlen. "It's also a better way to spend our public safety dollars more wisely by focusing on real threats, and it prevents harm to those people who are caught with it. Yes, I do think this can pass."

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


Anonymous (not verified)

My wife and I worked a few years on Mass/Cann's Board of Directors. For speaking out against these unjust Drug laws we were set up and raided by the police. It is fair and true to say we were set up because the affidavit that their warrant was based on places me home selling marijuana when hospital records place me in the hospital and in the I.C.U. wing. It is great to see Mass. move forward towards deciminalization. I hope Barney Frank and Mass/Cann can do something to get a Federal Medical Marijuana Bill in Place. Time is long past due to end this foolish drug war.

Captain Joint

Fri, 04/04/2008 - 12:55pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

This will never pass here. We have enough real problems to deal with in Mass. Making it easier to do drugs is just not a priority. And, how many billions will it cost when people have the many problems associated with pot smoking particularly in the underclasses? White liberals just don't get it. Just because you can get high and go to your college classes or rehab if all doesn't go well does not mean the economically disadvantaged can. Drugs lead to huge problems - say no making pot legal in Mass!

Thu, 04/10/2008 - 4:28pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Keep pot illegal and while we're at it let's make illegal truly deleterious substances like alcohol and nicotine!

Besides, this isn't about making pot legal. It's making it so that, when caught with pot, your life isn't ruined. Actually READ the article and THINK about the implications of the current system!

People are going to do drugs, this won't make it any easier or harder than it's ever been. Even if pot "leads to huge problems" (which, by the way, federally funded studies show that it doesn't), imprisonment and its ramifications also lead to huge problems. Let's pretend that for 50% of the population, using pot leads to huge problems. EVEN SO, the current ramifications of being arrested for possession lead to huge problems for nearly 100% of all convicted. Considering that just "how illegal" pot is has no discernible effect on its use (again, studies show this), that means that the harsher the penalties, the more lives (of 'white liberals' and your 'economically disadvantaged') that are fucked up.

So take your party line conservative bull elsewhere. Preferably, take it somewhere where you actually learn to read up on and consider an issue before taking a side.

Sat, 04/12/2008 - 6:53pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

What do you mean we have enough problems in Mass, obviously you must be some type of idiot.The state is trying to save money and stop crimilization of a substance that should never even have been illegalized.How does alcohol become legal and not Marijuana so whoever posted the comment stated NO NO NO go and grab a bottle of whiskey chug it down and pack your mini van up with all your kid's and run it into a tree at 100 miles an hour so basically what i am trying to say is SHUT YOUR FACE AND LET IT BE.........

Mon, 04/28/2008 - 4:10pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

You are an ignorant fool. Keep believing every biggoted statistic you and your morality police representation can think up.

Fri, 07/11/2008 - 1:24pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

okay, this guy who read the articale is so right, you got nothing to say because your a fucking retarded dink hole. The current law destroys the lifes of people who did something as simple as inhaling a substance into their own body which has an effect that most defidately only effects themself. It doesn't matter if it's your first time or you smoke ten bowls a day. Most everyone has done it and it only punishes those stupid enough to get caught. So, basically we are jailing people for being stupid... Now does that seem right to you?

Sun, 04/20/2008 - 1:12am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

some of us are just unlucky! and not at all stupid.

Sat, 09/27/2008 - 11:16am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Lets not get too opinionated here. We should consider the Constitution of the United States of America, and we should defend it with our lives as our forefathers did! Before posting an opinion you should gather some unbiased facts from a variety of sources. I'm sure there are pros and cons to both philosophies, but chipping away at our freedoms is UNAMERICAN!!! I think we're supposed to be talking about simple "possession" of marijuana ONLY. People get angry when they fear something (most likely "sale to minors"). There are lots of myths and fallacies about marijuana which are embelished upon by our law makers. The truth about marijuana is that the most HARMFUL thing about it, are the LAWS which encarcerate our youth and create a permanant record that will be scrutinized for many years by hiring managers. Marijuana's effects are the least noteable of any drug out there, and when "not under the influence", there are absolutely no measureable effects whatsoever! Compare that to alcohol use and its ability to impair performance, and its effect on productivity in the workplace. Fact -more than 70% of marijuana users are gainfully employed. Unfortunately, drug testing is only effective on the fat soluable THC (in marijnuana), and beyond 1 or 2 days, is completely USELESS detecting the more serious (water soluable) drugs like heroin, cocaine, ectsacy etc. So, what message are we sending? It makes more sense for youths and young adults to use those drugs in place of marijuana! Brilliant! We should reserve drug testing by parents (testing their own teenage children).
As if we don't have enough laws already, as if we need the government controlling our lives even more. Cummon people teach your own children right from wrong! Demand that law makers serve OUR best interests, instead of their own! Get the facts from your own trusted sources, and don't believe the ignorant polititians who's information is politically tainted.

Yes, I have children and I don't want them doing drugs but I'm also a realist and know that the best I can do is guide, instill values, and teach them to think for themselves. Its a simple question really, like.... do "guns" kill people, or do "people" do it? What if a knife or a frying pan was used? Do we need more laws? Same is true about alcohol, cell phones, etc. Teach responsibility, and making good choices! Making more laws, and taking away our rights and privacy is NOT THE ANSWER! Having choice is AMERICAN! If only we could turn off the reality television and sports for a few minutes, and somehow wake up from our marketing stupors, we might realize that the freedoms, rights and privacy we grew up enjoying, ARE LOST FOREVER. I'm sure our kids will be thanking us in the very near future!

Mon, 04/28/2008 - 11:28am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Judge Young Ruling (DEA, 1988), Shafer Commission (US federal government, 1973) and nothing has changed.

Sat, 05/17/2008 - 11:26am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Marijuana has been around much longer than any of us have. Its a plant. Its natural. It is not as if this plant was created in a lab, it is a growing, living plant. There are many other reasons as to why I think marijuana should be legal, however the simple fact that the marijuana plant was put here by no consequence of human action,should be reason enough to legalize it. I do not understand the logic behind making it illegal in the first place. Cleary it is unrealistic to think that marijuana will become legal overnight, however this first initiative to decriminalize marijuana poss. in mass. is the first step in a long overdue process to correct one of the many illogical drug laws we have here in the United States.

Fri, 06/13/2008 - 2:58pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

How about the use of medical marijuana to relieve pain?

BTW, civilized people attack positions, not people.

Mind your manners.

A. Nony Mouse

Thu, 08/28/2008 - 10:49am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Marijuana grows from the earth, it was put here for you and me. It wasnt distilled or brewed like alcohol which causes more deaths from overdoses and drunk driving. you never see anything on the news about someone getting high and beating there wife no there either drunk or on drugs faar worse than marijuana.

Thu, 09/11/2008 - 2:14am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

someone dies from an alcohol related car death every 30 seconds thats some dare shit. i dont know about pot even imparing your driving i drive fine. People drive better stoned. more cautiously and significantly slower. under the speed limit usually. i wish it was legal to smoke and drive. it should be . just dont blaze in the car and they cant prove your blazed or when you smoked

Fri, 01/09/2009 - 4:07am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Understanding Marijuana,anew look at the scientific evidence .By Mitch Earleywine .Oxford press. Why Marijuana should be legal by Ed rosenthal ,Steve Kubby With S .Newhart Thunders mouth press . Reefer Madness ,
The history of Marijuana in America Larry Sloman.. St. Martins Griffin Press. And a thanks to Mr .Harry Jacob Anslinger ,For your long history of surpressing all May u fry!!!! Squint eye.

Sat, 09/27/2008 - 12:10pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

thank you who ever is finaly taking a stand against these unfair and unjust laws against marijawana weed is a plant not a drug. and i garenty that over 50% of the population of the united states has tried marijawana and a good 30% does it every now and then. its about time people step up and speak there mind in what they belive in not just what is expected. after all thats how this country started anyway.

Wed, 10/01/2008 - 7:07pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

The notion of decriminilizing marijuana in mass is the first of many steps. Marijuana ruins peoples lives, putting it simply. I grew up in a urban area, and saw many of my best friends lives ruined because of possesion. This doesn't make sense. What were they doing wrong? Were they beating someone. No. One of my friends was playing larosse with a joint, but he got arrested, and now he can't even get a good job. He could have been succesful; he could have even started up his own company, but no one trusted him because he had a criminal offense. Bullshit. Decriminilize marijuana and save many lives.

Tue, 10/28/2008 - 11:15am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Hey "thank you" person

you kinda bring a bad name to pot smokers when you cant even spell marijuana. But at least your minds in the right place.

The reasons are so simple. First of all, it is just a plant, and if you wanna take the risk to use it that is up to you. The consequences are a little extreme, but thats not the reason it should be decriminalized. It should be because it will save money while still enforcing the same morals to adults and teen alike.
Maybe if the state has more money they can pay for more town expenses. Every year I watch my town face a bigger and bigger budget crisis. The schools in my town had to cut library completely and are thinking of cutting extra-curriculars and sports in anticipation for next year. This is just rediculous and something has to give. I know its pretty off topic but anything towards intelligently saving money is a good start.

And I almost had to deal with having posession permanently on my record. Ruining my life because of a few wrong decisions I made as a teen.

A fine will still send the message to kids that its wrong but it wont ruin their lives. And im sure alot of parents will force their kids to pay for the fine themselves. And a 100 dollar fine for a teen sure fucking hurts.

Pot is proven to be very mildly harmful compared to all the other psychoactive drugs and even the legal alchohol.

so choose the side that makes sense

Tue, 10/28/2008 - 7:53pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

I'm not entirely sure where this country went wrong. There is a blatantly obvious fundamental problem with our laws and the way the so called "system" works in regards to Marijuana.

Maybe its because the only documented tests conducted on Marijuana and its effects have either been conducted entirely wrong, or discarded all together and replaced with falsified data in an effort to keep things the way they are.

Take the Dr. Heath/Tulane study of 1974 Conducted under the Ronald Reagan administration.

The above mentioned report claims that after the use of marijuana, in any context, brain cells die. The study was conducted on a group of monkeys who were given an alleged 30 joints a day for 1 year. However this is not true, in reality the monkeys were placed in gas masks and pumped full of marijuana at a rate of 63 joints in a 5 minute period, per day over a period of 3 months. The fundamental flaw with this method was that these monkeys were literally pumped full of THC via a gas mask with NO additional oxygen. Any medical source will tell you that after 4 minutes the brain will shut down and begin to die, minus oxygen. As a result of this un-ethical testing, the monkeys began to die after 90 days at which point the amount of dead brain cells were counted and compared to those not subjected to marijuana and directly attributed to the USE of marijuana regardless of the fact that no oxygen was provided during the time marijuana was introduced to the monkeys body. This entire report was used at the basis for every anti-marijuana movement since.

Studies since this report came out, have shown NO evidence of brain damage as a direct consequence of smoking or using Marijuana in its natural form.

It is also believed that cannabis use alone causes lung cancer, this proves however to be also untrue.

In the 1999 study by the institute of medicine, which was funded by the US Government, the report had to use words like "may" and "should" cause lung cancer. You cannot find a single case of lung cancer caused by the use of marijuana alone, it simply cannot be done. However marijuana use must be done in moderation, due to the fact that it is still smoke and can and will paralyze the cilia but if its not radioactive your probably not going to get cancer from it. Thats funny because Tobacco is grown with non other than Radioactive Fertilizer.

If you have the evidence of it causing lung cancer, and more over being of a deadly variety then why aren't you showing us this "evidence" rather you only speak of it.

There are NO deaths directly related to the use of Marijuana, you cannot find one. No medical institution or University has ever recorded a death directly attributed to the use of Marijuana.

With an average of 430,000 deaths per year, which beats out aids, heroine, crack, cocaine, fire, car accidents, alcohol and even murder, cigarettes have shown to be the deadliest threat to the human society of america today, and yet these products remain as legal and as easy to obtain as they always have been.

Lets look at the big business picture here. How much money does the US Government stand to gain on keeping marijuana illegal.

Well lets see, you have law enforcement who receives annual budgets to enforce marijuana laws that completely EXCEED those of any other illicit drug. You have the court system which profits off of any case related to marijuana that comes through the system. You have Rehabilitation clinics and Drug Testing facilities that profit off of drug testing. And then of course you have the DEA who has the ability to seize, and often does, the assets of busted drug dealers and growers. Its big businesses, there is a TON of money to be made.

Lets not forget of course, Marijuana is now clinically proven to have over 200 medical uses. For those of you paying attention, that is more uses than any other legal prescription drug available on the market today. The most profitable industry in the united states is the Pharmaceuitcal Industry, why on earth would the most profitable industry in the US want to allow patients to grow their own medicine when they make so much money every year off people buying their non-sense drugs most of which when taken in quantity can and will kill, and have killed thousands of people.

What about the so called crime rates in relation to Marijuana?

According to Norm Stamper, PhD who served as the chief of Seattle police from 1994 to 2004 the amount of violence and crime directly related to marijuana use was absent, and he meant the COMPLETE absence, on the contrary he observed during his time as a police officer the unmeasurable amount of violence, crime, and deaths associated with alcohol use. Norm cannot recall a single instance where Marijuana directly influenced an act of domestic violence or theft in the light.

Lets look at something here, what was the last thing this country placed under prohibition? Yep, Alcohol. And what happened? Well how about total chaos, complete disregard for the law, and a RISE in alcohol poisoning of 6%. Great, that seemed to work real well. Most of the "crime" related to marijuana is caused because the drug is illegal, you have to be a criminal to sell it, transport it, and use it. We already know that doesn't make sense.

The Economy is in a recession, and there is billions of dollars in circulation keeping small businesses and companies alive that comes directly from the growing and trafficking of marijuana. If you were to make it legal and devise and enact a plan to regulate the growing and distribution of the product privately, and place a cap on how much can be produced before the act becomes criminal, that would be a good and sound way to begin the process of legalization.

Lets face it, The Government willingly and knowingly allows us to purchase, ingest, manufacture, grow, produce, and market deadly, toxic substances every day in this country. And yet not a single realistic and present day study has been conducted with Marijuana to show and prove its true attributes. We are continually lied to about its short term and long term effects and at the same time the American public is growing increasingly aware of marijuana's positive health benefits and the incorrect and entirely made health threats.

Why can't the american government just come to terms with the fact that you cannot lie about something forever, especially when the american people in favor or marijuana law reform are quickly if not already outnumbering those against it.

This issue needs to be brought to floor of congress immediately, and looked into scientifically, and documented correctly so that the thousands of people suffering from diseases and conditions treatable with cannabis can use, purchase, and grow their own medicine rather than spending thousands per year on medicines that don't do anything, and more often kill people than help them.

The American people are speaking out, they are standing up, and they are not going to give up, you cannot keep a lie of this nature at bay forever.

Fri, 12/26/2008 - 2:38am Permalink

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