There is no sense to be found in the prosecution of individuals for possession of small amounts of marijuana. It clogs up our overburdened criminal-justice system, while achieving absolutely nothing. It also unnecessarily infringes on the civil liberties of those having a harmless toke, and provides a too-easy avenue for law-enforcement personnel to affix a criminal history to an undeserving citizen — often a young person who merely looks like trouble to a cop.
A proposed initiative, working its way toward the 2008 state ballot, would change this, by decriminalizing small-scale marijuana possession. Possession of an ounce or less, then, would be treated as a civil infraction, punishable by a fine of $100.
Decriminalization is a much more tepid step than outright legalization, and the public supports it. Citizens in municipalities across the state have petitioned for local ballot questions on the issue, and in every case have voted for change, according to the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition.
Unfortunately, the well-intentioned ballot initiative, as written, is flawed. As psychiatrist Lester Grinspoon wrote a week ago in the Boston Globe, it would make an offense of internal possession — that is, having marijuana metabolites in one’s system, indicating previous use.
It is too late to rewrite the proposal and still get it onto the 2008 ballot. But the language can be fixed by the legislature before it takes effect.
The Phoenix urges decriminalization supporters to continue their efforts, and the public to vote in favor of the initiative, despite its flaws, next year. An overwhelming show of support for the idea, if not the exact measure, is the only way to give our state legislators the balls to finally act on decriminalization.
For years, Beacon Hill has declined to do so, mostly out of cowardice.
Some of our leaders have heartfelt, if misguided, reservations about marijuana reform. Dorchester state representative Martin Walsh, for example, who sits on the Mental Health and Substance Abuse Committee, argues passionately that a sharp line must be drawn with pot, to prevent use of the harder drugs that ravage so many of his constituents and their families. But marijuana is not a true “gateway” drug, and the money spent by the state arresting, prosecuting, and incarcerating for pot offenses — more than $100 million a year, by one estimate — could be better used for prevention and treatment of much more serious substance use.
In fact, the 11 states that have already decriminalized marijuana have seen no increase in pot use, let alone in the use of other drugs, according to the Committee for Sensible Marijuana Policy.
Other lawmakers, taking their cue from Governor Deval Patrick, would prefer to address marijuana as part of comprehensive sentencing reform. That effort is anticipated sometime next year, or perhaps in 2009.
That’s not what’s really holding up the legislation, however. Nor is the small number of objectors, such as Walsh. What really stops it, in every legislative session, are the many legislators who fear being labeled as soft on drugs.
Their cowardice will only become more pronounced when broad sentencing reform does eventually come before them. If history is any predictor, we can expect that some will use this opportunity to replace any sensible, sane policy measures — including marijuana decriminalization — with ill-conceived, draconian, “tough-on-crime” measures.