Sunday, March 12, 2006

Proposed marijuana legislation being stonewalled

Town Online

arijuana enthusiasts may have to wait a little longer for legislation removing a criminal record for any person caught with an ounce or less of the illegal, yet commonly used substance.
Like secondhand smoke, the proposed legislation has floated about the halls of the Massachusetts House of Representatives for a few months.
However, according to state Rep. Peter Koutoujian, D-Waltham, that’s where it will remain.
Currently the legislation is in "study," or a sort of limbo where legislators may reconsider it in the future.
The proposed legislation would have created a mandatory $250 fine inflicted upon anyone caught with an ounce or less of marijuana.
People under 18 caught with the drug would be arrested and held by police until their parents picked them up.
In both cases, no criminal record would exist.
According to the Watertown Police Department, 13 people were arrested from March 1, 2005, through March 7, 2006, for possession of marijuana.
Koutoujian, chairman of the Committee on Public Health, said ultimately the legality of the legislation was questioned in terms of the federal government’s role in drug policy decision making.
"It was a very powerful hearing," Koutoujian said of a hearing held by his committee on the legislation.
Koutoujian said testimonials given by two people, who suffer from different illnesses and use marijuana to alleviate pain, were particularly moving.
"They were very compelling as to the fact that their medicinal use of marijuana helped them to alleviate pain," Koutoujian said, explaining though that the legality issue prevailed.
"However, we never really got to the point that whether or not there’s validity to medicinal marijuana use," Koutoujian said, "Because the [federal] Supreme Court has upheld the federal government’s position in the banning of marijuana use."
In one particular case, the Supreme Court ruled it is not for the states to declare if marijuana use should be legal for medicinal purposes, and that instead, it was the federal government’s responsibility.

"So that in our estimation of the committee putting legislation out favorably would be a violation of federal law and the constitution," Koutoujian said.
State Rep. Rachel Kaprielian, D-Watertown, said the jury in her mind was out on the legislation.
"I don’t really have a solid yes or no," Kaprielian said. "Generally, the laws of crime and punishment should reflect the nature of the offense. I absolutely think people caught with illegal drugs should be penalized, but are these laws over-egregious?"
Kaprielian, while somewhat questioning the tenacity of the current laws, brought up the fact that marijuana is often thought of as a "gateway drug," one that leads to other more serious addictions.
"My inclination is to be very cautious in making it less of an offense," Kaprielian said.
Koutoujian said if the legislation was approved by the Committee on Public Health, the approval of other committees would still be necessary before it found its way onto the House floor.
At the same time, Koutoujian remained unsure if the legislation would receive enough support to gain approval even if presented to the full House.
"I’m not sure there was enough appetite to pass it on its merits, but we never got to that question," Koutoujian said.
"I think there are other members that really think we should reflect the nature of the offense, and I respect that opinion," Kaprielian said.
While some support of the legislation remains in the House, Koutoujian said unless the federal government enacted new policy, it would most likely remain in study.
"There’s a lot of pressure on the federal government to look at it again," Koutoujian said, adding any change remains highly unlikely.


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