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Mass. ballot initiative makes pot possession a civil offense

A wide array of pundits has been referring to the recent election as "historic" because, for the first time, an African-American was elected president. But for Jeff Morris, a sophomore at Suffolk University in Boston, the election was historic for a different reason.

Morris, who started a chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws at Suffolk this semester, is celebrating the passage of Massachusetts Ballot Question 2, which decriminalizes the possession of up to one ounce of marijuana, making it a civil offense instead of a criminal one.

"The next day I got to school, everyone was just really excited," Morris said. "I heard more about Question 2 than about Barack Obama winning."

Under the new law, people caught with one ounce or less of marijuana in Massachusetts must forfeit the drug and pay a $100 fine. Those under the age of 18 must also complete a drug awareness program, and are subject to fines of up to $1,000 if they do not complete the program within a year.

Under the current law, possession of marijuana is a misdemeanor that can carry up to a $500 fine and six months in jail. Under the new law, which is expected to take effect in January, possession of more than one ounce of marijuana is considered possession with an intent to distribute, and is still a crime.

The bill, which passed by a margin of 65 percent to 35 percent, received wide support among college students but was opposed by a broad coalition of Massachusetts lawmakers and police. Although the law has yet to be submitted to the state legislature for review - where it could still be amended or repealed - one district attorney has already said he will drop all pending simple possession marijuana cases.

Thomas Nolan, associate professor of criminal justice at Boston University and a 27-year veteran of the Boston Police Department, said he believed decriminalization is "the right course." Nolan, who appeared in a television ad supporting Question 2, said that while he does not "condone marijuana use," he believes it should not be a criminal offense.

Nolan said 7,500 new criminal records are created each year in Massachusetts for those charged with marijuana possession and that those records can have serious consequences, particularly for students receiving financial aid or looking for employment.

Students with criminal marijuana offenses on their record could be denied federal financial aid, Nolan said.

Critics of decriminalization point to the fact that Massachusetts state law already requires judges to seal the records of first-time marijuana possession offenders after six months if they do not commit another criminal offense. However, said Nolan, these records are not expunged. He said that, from a police perspective, a sealed record gives the impression that a person has "something to hide."

Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley joined with all 11 of Massachusetts's district attorneys to oppose the bill, citing public safety concerns. In an Oct. 31 press release, Coakley said the "decriminalization of marijuana will send a message to children and young adults that it is okay to use and abuse illegal substances."

Massachusetts students, however, were less convinced that the law would have a significant impact on campus communities.

"I haven't seen any opposition (to Question 2) at all, really," said Jonathan Sussman, co-president of Students for Sensible Drug Policy at Brandeis University. "I've pretty much seen support across the board for it. Even my Republican friends and a few professors."

Sussman said the small and "relatively young" SSDP chapter at Brandeis was not heavily involved in supporting the passage of Question 2. Last year, he said, they collected some signatures for petitions in support of the bill and signed up new voters.

"We didn't encounter much direct opposition," he said, "but we did encounter a lot of apathy."

Sussman said he did not expect the new law itself to affect Brandeis students in a major way. But in response to what he calls an "arbitrary" history of enforcing substance use policies at Brandeis, his group is drafting a resolution that would "officially declare drugs the lowest priority" for campus law enforcement. He said they plan to have a proposal before the Brandeis Student Union Senate by next week.

Sussman said that with the recent passage of Question 2, "people are becoming more aware that drug policy reform is something we can do in college."

Morris, the leader of the NORML chapter at Suffolk, said that the Saturday before the election his group held a small demonstration in the Boston Commons in support of Question 2. He said passers-by expressed little opposition to the bill.

Morris said that although students were surprised by the passage of the bill, he did not expect the law to change the extent of marijuana use in the state. "I think it's just going to be a relax for responsible marijuana users," he said. "A nice breath of air, like a nice sigh."

Lester Grinspoon, associate professor emeritus of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the author of several books on positive uses of marijuana, said he was "delighted" that Question 2 had passed.

Grinspoon said he believes marijuana's medical uses will bring about its legalization during the lifetime of today's college student, and that Question 2 is a step in that direction.

"People are going to have an experience seeing a friend or loved one using this substance and not going wacky," making them more comfortable about supporting legalization, Grinspoon said.

Although he supported Question 2, Grinspoon said he believed marijuana should be totally decriminalized and regulated in much the same manner that alcohol is. "People have to use it responsibly," said Grinspoon. "You don't drink and drive, you don't smoke and drive."

Question 2 must still be approved by the Massachusetts state legislature, which has 30 days to change or even prevent it from going into effect. Morris said his group is writing letters to political officials and plans to hold more small rallies to ensure the measure becomes law.

"The fight isn't over yet," he said.


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