Police and the DA should try listening to the voters for a change

Pot prosecution costs $29 million a year in Massachusetts
Haven't the Police anything more important to solve, like violent crime?

By Dan Bernath

When Massachusetts voters passed a ballot initiative decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana last Election Day, their message was clear: Yes, marijuana should still be illegal, but the penalties for small marijuana infractions are much too harsh.

It should have come as no surprise how easily the proposal to make adult possession of an ounce of marijuana a civil violation punishable by a $100 fine rather than a criminal violation passed.


United States has among the toughest marijuana laws on either side of the Atlantic
   - World Health Organization

Voters understood that harsher penalties for small marijuana violations do not result in lower marijuana use rates or lower crime rates in any way. They knew that 11 other states had already established policies decriminalizing marijuana - most in place for decades - with no more marijuana-related problems than neighboring states that arrest such users.

Their sensible assumptions were affirmed by a 2008 World Health Organization report concluding that while the United States has among the toughest marijuana laws on either side of the Atlantic, we have by far the highest marijuana use rates. In fact, our marijuana use rates are double what they are in the Netherlands, where the sale and adult possession of marijuana are legally tolerated.

The only thing arresting smalltime marijuana violators accomplished was wasting tax dollars - about $29 million a year in Massachusetts, by Harvard economist Dr. Jeffrey Miron's calculations. Oh, that and saddling ordinary citizens, young people and minorities in particular, with arrest records that could follow them their entire lives.

So, despite the way it was portrayed in much of the press, Nov. 4's vote wasn't a referendum on whether marijuana should be legal. It wasn't a referendum on whether marijuana use should be tolerated, much less encouraged. And it certainly wasn't a referendum on state law enforcement's competence or fairness in enforcing existing marijuana laws.

That is, until Massachusetts' law enforcement leadership turned it into one. In what was either a stunning public relations miscalculation or a profound misunderstanding of the proposal, Bay State police chiefs and district attorneys decided not only to oppose the measure, but also to exhaust their credibility trying to defeat it.

Their campaign was full of hyperbole and contradiction. Decriminalizing marijuana would encourage marijuana use, especially among children, they said, while ignoring the lower marijuana use rates in neighboring New York, a decriminalized state since the late '70s. Decriminalizing would send the message that marijuana use is ok, they argued, while at the same time insisting that street cops rarely bothered with low-level marijuana users anyway. The process of fining and releasing marijuana violators would be too complicated for cops, they said, although officers apparently had no difficulty arresting, booking, trying, convicting and then fining them.

And so on. Not surprisingly, Massachusetts voters rebuffed law enforcement's dire warnings and passed the measure with 65 percent of the vote, more than President Obama, who carried the state easily, received.

Also not surprisingly, nearly three months after the law was implemented, none of the opponents' predictions of chaos and wanton drug abuse have come to pass.

"Reefer Madness Alert"
D.A. O'Keefe and crew should learn from their recent mistakes and show some faith in their constituents' judgment.

But law enforcement leaders, having just embarrassed themselves at the polls with their "reefer madness" opposition to a modest, uncontroversial adjustment to marijuana penalties, are determined to exacerbate the damage they've done to their credibility. Rather than accept that the voters were right on this one, law enforcement officials are attempting to exploit a provision in the new law that allows localities to pass ordinances enhancing penalties for public marijuana use.

The provision was intended for the unlikely possibility that some communities might find that the prospect of a $100 fine and confiscation of contraband to be an inadequate deterrent to public marijuana use.

Rather than respect the will of the voters and acknowledge that the new law has in no way encouraged public marijuana use, those who originally opposed the initiative are rushing to subvert it through the public use provision. Among these opponents are Cape Cod District Attorney Michael O'Keefe and police chiefs in nine Cape towns.

While the details are sketchy right now, and the effects such proposals will have on the letter and spirit of Massachusetts' decrim law unclear, O'Keefe and crew should learn from their recent mistakes and show some faith in their constituents' judgment.

So far, we've seen more of the same nonsense from them that we saw before the law passed. You'd think to hear these officials talk that there's an epidemic of marijuana users taking to our parks to smoke marijuana, happy to pay the existing $100 fine and lose their stash for the privilege.

Once again, these law enforcement officials are playing games. Once again, it's up to the voters to call them on their childish nonsense.

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