A stream of witnesses brought a common sense approach to marijuana policy to a hearing on Beacon Hill this week.
A stream of witnesses brought a common-sense approach to marijuana policy to a hearing on Beacon Hill this week. The current law making possession of small amounts of marijuana a criminal offense wastes money -- $24 million a year, according to a Boston University study -- and hurts people, especially young people, they testified. And after 35 years of the war on drugs, it's hard to argue that the current policy is preventing people from using marijuana.
The bill before the Joint Mental Health and Substance Abuse Committee would impose a $250 civil fine for possession of less than an ounce of marijuana, freeing offenders of the criminal record that can close off access to jobs and student aid.
Nobody showed up to speak in opposition to the bill, but that doesn't mean there is clear sailing ahead. The state Legislature has been reluctant to vote on anything that might brand members as soft on crime, and a spokeswoman for Gov. Deval Patrick reiterated his campaign pledge to veto any decriminalization measure.
Patrick, who looks more like a conventional politician by the day, showed more common sense in endorsing bringing casinos to Massachusetts. While agreeing that gambling can be addictive, he recognized that, for most people, it isn't. A 10-year study by Harvard Medical School found that 3 to 5 percent of people will develop a gambling problem, which is another way of saying that for 95 to 97 percent of the people, gambling is a harmless entertainment.
Can the same be said for marijuana? Yes, but alcohol is an easier comparison. Marijuana is far less addictive than booze and, strictly speaking, it's not addictive at all. It is less destructive to your liver and other organs than alcohol, nor is it as associated with violence, family break-up or other social ills. There is no known fatal dose of marijuana.
Alcohol prohibition failed because people finally admitted that, while alcohol is a problem for some people, it's a harmless entertainment for most. Marijuana prohibition is more punitive than alcohol prohibition ever was, since the Volstead Act never simple possession of alcohol illegal.
Consistency would argue that whether the vice in question is a hobby or a habit, drinking beer, smoking pot or playing poker is an individual decision, not something that should come with a prison sentence.
Consistency may be more than we can expect from our state Legislature. Rep. Ruth Balser, D-Newton, who has endorsed the marijuana decriminalization bill, is an opponent of legalizing casinos. A similar marijuana bill was approved by Balser's committee last year, but was never brought to the floor of either house for a vote.
In Massachusetts, as in other states, the public is way ahead of the politicians on marijuana reform. Since 2002, voters in 30 House districts approved nonbinding ballot questions endorsing some form of decriminalization, often by wide margins. Activists are now circulating petitions to put an initiative decriminalizing marijuana possession on the statewide ballot in 2008.
Eventually, common sense will bring change to the state and nation's drug policies. The wonder is that it is taking so long.
-- MetroWest Daily News