Activists look to decriminalize pot
By ASSOCIATED PRESS
November 27, 2007
BOSTON - Activists pushing a ballot question to decriminalize possession of an ounce or less of marijuana say it will save the state millions of dollars in law enforcement costs and spare thousands of state residents from arrest.
Instead of facing a criminal record, those caught with a small amount of marijuana for personal use would instead pay a civil fine of $100 - much like a traffic ticket.
Backers say they've already collected 105,000 signatures, far more than the 67,000 required to get the question on the 2008 ballot. Those signatures have to be delivered to the secretary of state's office next week.
They said the tide of public opinion is on their side. They point to more than two dozen nonbinding referendum questions placed on local ballots in Massachusetts in the past six years. In each, a majority of voters supported the idea of decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana.
About a dozen states have already adopted similar laws.
"The public is definitely in favor of this," said Whitney Taylor of the Committee for Sensible Marijuana Policy. "The science and the voters are ahead of the politicians."
Surprisingly, some of the toughest criticism of the proposed ballot question is coming from other activist groups also pushing for the decriminalization of marijuana.
They point to a portion of the proposed ballot question that would define possession of marijuana to include finding traces of the drug "in the urine, blood, saliva, sweat, hair, fingernails, toe nails or other tissue or fluid of the human body."
"It uses the drug laws to identify marijuana smokers not who are impaired, but who might have smoked in the past six weeks or so," Keith Stroup, founder of NORML, a national nonprofit group advocating for the easing of marijuana laws.
"If it makes it to the ballot, a lot of people who would be strong supporters of decriminalizing marijuana may not be able to support this fatally flawed language," said Stroup, who was arrested for smoking a marijuana cigarette at a rally on Boston Common.
Longtime marijuana activist Steven Epstein, of the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition, said the group hasn't decided if they will support the question.
He said under the question, a person who smoked marijuana in a location where it is legal could be fined weeks later after returning to Massachusetts.
He pointed to another potential glitch in the ballot question, which equates an ounce of marijuana with an ounce of tetrahydrocannabinol, the active ingredient of the marijuana - essentially a much more concentrated version of the drug.
"It won't kill anybody and should probably be legal too, but will the voters of Massachusetts support it?" said Epstein, who said he hasn't decided whether he will vote in favor of the question if it reaches the ballot.
Other critics say they oppose decriminalizing any amount of marijuana, saying it could send a signal to children that smoking pot is no big deal.
Michael Mather, a retired police officer and head of the anti-drug education group DARE-Massachusetts, says easing the marijuana laws is a bad idea. "It's not the right thing to do to our youth. Our youth needs to be strong and not have these drugs inside of them," he said.
He also said marijuana could act as a so-called "gateway drug" to other, more harmful drugs.
"I'm not saying that everyone who smokes pot will do heroin, but almost everyone who does heroin didn't start out with heroin," he said.
Marijuana activists dismiss the gateway argument.
"It's like saying every one who rides a bicycle goes on to ride a motorcycle," Taylor said.
The ballot question isn't the only effort underway to ease the state's drug laws.
A bill working its way through the Statehouse would also decriminalize possession of an ounce or less of the drug, but set a higher fine of $250.
The bill has already received a public hearing, but won't come up for debate and a possible vote until next year.
Asked if he would support the bill, Gov. Deval Patrick said Monday he was focused on other priorities.
On the Net:
Committee for Sensible Marijuana Policy: http://www.sensiblemarijuanapolicy.org
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