Initiative To Decriminalize Marijuana In Massachusetts To Appear On November Ballot

Looking ahead to possible legislative changes to criminal law in Massachusetts, in November voters here are going to have an opportunity to vote on more than just the presidential election alone. One of the ballot questions in Massachusetts will ask voters if possession of a small amount of marijuana (one once or less) should be de-criminalized. The Committee for Sensible Marijuana Policy (CSMP) has secured over 20,000 signatures in support of placing the measure on the November ballot. Assuming the state secretary can verify 11,099 of those 20,000 signatures, the question will appear on the ballot, which at this date appears very likely. The voters’ decision on that ballot would be binding (i.e., if passed, the measure would become law.) Last fall, CSMP collected over 80,000 signatures from all 351 cities and towns across Massachusetts, 15,000 more than required by law, in order to place the ballot question before the legislature in Massachusetts (a separate requirement in the initiative petition process.) Representatives of CSMP have pointed to the high amount of signatures received from across the state, as evidence of the broad-based support for changes in this area of law.

Predictably, opinions run strong on both sides of the question. Many people, among them prominent medical and health authorities, believe that marijuana use is less harmful and less addictive than is alcohol use, or cigarette smoking. CSMP argues that each year in Massachusetts, over 7,500 people are arrested for a crime that they contend is harmless and victimless. In addition, supporters of the measure argue that under existing law, enormous police and prosecutorial resources are directed each year in Massachusetts to prosecute this crime – to the tune of $24 million in state and local money annually. Under Massachusetts law presently, the penalty for marijuana possession is a maximum of six months in jail and a fine of up to $500.00. While most persons charged with this crime receive a minimal sentence or probation, offenders do receive a criminal record, and that record becomes part of the Criminal Offender Records Information (CORI) system. CORI records are available to lenders, housing agencies, and employers, who can use this information to deny an applicant credit or housing. Following a conviction for this offense, college and graduate students can be denied student loans or have those loans.

It is important to note that the proposed measure would not “legalize” possession of marijuana –it would decriminalize possession of one ounce or less (an amount which is presumed to be for personal use only, and not for distribution.) The proposed law would replace the current criminal penalties, and substitute in its place a civil system of fines, similar to vehicular speeding fines. Each offense would incur a fine of $100.00. In support of its position, CSMP argues that, in fact, its ballot measure is the more moderate of several marijuana reform efforts currently being debated. MassCann, which is the sate’s chapter of the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML,) endorses CSMP’s goal, but believes even broader, more substantive changes in this area of drug law should be made. Specifically, MassCann believes that marijuana should not just be decriminalized, but be simply legalized and taxed appropriately, just as are alcohol and cigarettes.

As a Boston criminal defense attorney, I must say I see an enormous amount of police and prosecutorial resources currently directed toward arresting and prosecuting people for this crime. A credible argument can be made that these significant efforts divert police officers and prosecutors away from protecting people from “real” criminals. The Massachusetts District Attorneys Association has formally opposed the ballot initiative, arguing that decriminalization of marijuana will increase its use among young people, and citing federal drug control arguments that car accidents are much more likely when a driver has used pot. As a Massachusetts drug arrest defense lawyer, I can see both sides of the argument. However, this ballot measure doesn’t seek to decriminalize marijuana use while driving – that act can and would remain a criminal offense – just as driving under the influence of alcohol or other drugs is a crime. The measure seeks only to decriminalize possession of a very small amount of marijuana – an ounce or less – while not operating a motor vehicle – and impose in its place a $100.00 civil fine. When weighing the arguments to come in the months ahead, this fact should not be forgotten.

One thing you can count on for sure: A barrage of television and radio commercials, and large newsprint ads, are headed your way in the fall months. Barack Obama and John McCain aren’t the only ones we’ll be hearing from in late September and October.

My position, again, as a Boston Massachusetts drug offense attorney, is this: Let reason and rationale be your guide on this forthcoming issue, not emotion or fear. In any argument, it is the facts that are almost always the most important criteria, not hyperbole.