Bill would decriminalize one ounce of marijuana

by Beacon Staff • March 22, 2006

"[The bill] is not just being laughed at and thrown aside," Taylor said.,For Whitney Taylor, the executive director of the Drug Policy Forum of Massachusetts, getting a bill that would decriminalize the possession of less than one ounce of marijuana through committee was a huge victory.

"[The bill] is not just being laughed at and thrown aside," Taylor said. "It has started a conversation."

The bill, which was passed 6-1 in the Massachusetts General Court Joint Mental Health and Substance Abuse Committee last month, calls for a $250 fine in lieu of a criminal charge, Taylor said.

Taylor said her organization has been advocating for the bill since the late Senator Charles Shannon (D-Somerville) proposed it in 2005.

"Our personal view is that adults who possess personal amounts of marijuana shouldn't have a criminal record," Taylor said.

House Chair of the Joint Committee on Mental Health and Substance Abuse Ruth Balser (D-Newton) said Shannon, who had worked as a police officer in Somerville earlier in his career, agreed with Taylor.

"He had interacted with a lot of young people, and he saw their futures really damaged by being caught once for just a small amount of marijuana," Balser said.

Balser also said that 60 percent of voters who have responded to marijuana-related ballot questions have supported decriminalization of the drug.

Treating the possession of small amounts of marijuana as a civil offense, Taylor said, would allow state resources to be focused elsewhere.

"If our police officers are taking time and energy, as well as our courts [on marijuana], then they aren't spending time on crimes that are violent and that hurt other people," she said.

Sophomore organizational and political communication major Heather Vitale also said she thinks marijuana should not be a law enforcement priority.

"I think [the bill] is a good idea, because I think marijuana is not as much of a problem as other harder drugs, like cocaine or heroin," she said.

Taylor also said the Drug Policy Forum of Massachusetts enlisted the help of an economist who estimated that the state would save $24.3 million in arrests and booking fees if less than an ounce of marijuana was decriminalized.

"Let's take that $24.3 million and kick it back into education, prevention and treatment," Taylor said.

However, the bill is not without its critics.

Representative John Binienda (D-Worcester), who recently proposed a different bill that would increase both fines and jail time for state marijuana dealers, said people could get around the legislation by possessing larger quantities of marijuana but just carrying them one ounce at a time.

Binienda said he has been working for 20 years to tighten legislation around marijuana, which he considers a gateway drug.

"It's just unfortunate, what it can lead to," Binienda said.

Although Vitale said she sees no problem with marijuana use, she did say she thinks the drug will become more popular if it is decriminalized.

"I think people would be less afraid of getting caught, because they'd think 'Oh, it's just a slap on the wrist now,'" Vitale said.

Taylor said youth marijuana use has gone down in the 11 other states, including California, that have decriminalized small amounts of the drug.

"That whole, 'We're sending the wrong message, youth are going to run out and do [marijuana]'-it hasn't happened," Taylor said.

Emerson College Police Department Lieutenant Scott Bornstein also found fault with the bill.

"I don't think it's a good idea to decriminalize it," Bornstein said. "It's a drug and it should be illegal."

According to Emerson's "Annual Report: Campus Security Policies and Crime Statistics," released by Public Safety in the fall, on-campus drug law violations rose from 26 in 2003 to 71 in 2004, The Beacon reported in October.

Bornstein said most, if not all of these violations were related to marijuana. Representative David Sullivan (D-Fall River), also a member of the committee that passed the bill, said he didn't oppose the proposal, but he did not support it fully.

"I'd like to see the language tightened up-right now, it's not limited to first-time offenders," Sullivan said.

He also said he would like to see the volume of marijuana that necessitates a fine reduced.

The bill has been referred to the Senate Ways Means committee, where Taylor expects it will die. Because it is an election year, she said, Democrats would not want to rock the vote by passing marijuana legislation.

Still, she said, ideas like decriminalization are the best solution to the state's drug problem.

"In over 30 years of a war on drugs and locking people up and throwing away the key, all we have are full prisons, more drugs and cheaper drugs," Taylor said. "To me that isn't working. We need to try something different."

Freshman writing, literature and publishing major Emmanuel Psihountas said he doesn't think the bill goes far enough.

"I consider it a small step toward legalizing [marijuana]," Psihountas said. "But it's far from the real deal."