Thursday, February 23, 2006

Legislators propose lesser punishments for marijuana

The Daily Free Press

In a move that, in part, supports college students, a statehouse committee approved a bill to decriminalize the possession of marijuana.

"I do not believe that individuals' futures should be ruined for having a very small amount of marijuana and the loss of student loans and scholarships," said Rep. Ruth Balser (D-Newton), head of the Mental Health and Substance Abuse Committee that passed the bill by a vote of 6-1.

The Committee sent to the House for a full vote a bill last Monday that would decriminalize the possession of less than an ounce of marijuana. Instead of receiving a criminal charge, violators would only receive a civil charge, eliminating the possibility of jail time and reducing a potential fine under current law.

Under law, violators are subject to up to six months in jail or a $500 fine if convicted of carrying the drug. If the bill were to pass, violators would receive a maximum $250 fine and the parents of minors would be notified by police.

Although the bill passed in 11 other states, Massachusetts may be a different story. The committee is only the first step, with the motion still needing to pass through the house, senate and Gov. Mitt Romney before becoming a law.

"I'm not sure it is likely to pass into law," Balser said. "But we felt like it was important enough to pass."

Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, a pro-marijuana group trying to reform laws, expressed his support for the bill as well.

"Taking marijuana off the streets is the most important thing for the government," St. Pierre said. "A $100 fine is good money for the state, while detaining someone costs Massachusetts a lot of money each year. One hundred million Americans live under a state or district with the same laws."

According to Balser, Massachusetts spends $24 million a year prosecuting offenders, and that money could be put into better use.

"I would rather see the $24 million go to treatment and help people with serious drug issues," Balser said.

During the election years of 2000, 2002 and 2004, NORML put forth a ballot petition that asked whether Massachusetts citizens thought that "carrying less than an ounce of marijuana should be criminalized," according to St. Pierre.

"Voters across the board instructed the politicians to pass legislation such as this one," St. Pierre said. "This law would seem to reflect the will of Massachusetts voters."

Colorado recently passed a law stating that offenders carrying less than one ounce of marijuana will not face punishment, although the substance will be confiscated, according to St. Pierre. This indicates that typically conservative states, such as Colorado, are beginning to lighten punishment for those carrying small amounts of marijuana, he added.

"It's not just a liberal Massachusetts idea," St. Pierre said. "Reform is taking place all around the country."

However, many states and politicians are refraining from implementing more lenient laws, fearing complacency may lead to continued use. Balser refuted these claims.

"There is no evidence that drug use has increased as a result of this law," Balser said.


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