Big-name pols push 'no' on pot vote
October 30, 2008

By Pete Stidman
News Editor

The political heavies of the Commonwealth, including the governor, the mayor and the tough-on-crime district attorneys, have pounced on a pair of TV spots featuring retired Boston police officers promoting Question 2 last week - a ballot initiative that would decriminalize possession of under an ounce of marijuana. But the flock of public opinion isn't following their lead so far, according to recent polls.

Dorchester seems to be fairly split on the topic, with some raising alarms and others ready to ease up on simple marijuana possession. Under the measure, people caught with under an ounce would still be fined $100 as a civil offense - more for repeat offenders - and counseling and community service would be required for youth offenders.

Proponents of Question 2 are likely to have flown the CORI-reform banner in the past, arguing that de-criminalizing marijuana would eliminate the possibility that individuals would be turned down for jobs, denied student loans or other benefits because they had been caught with a joint.

"I think we have far too many drug addicts in jail when they should be in treatment centers," said councillor Charles Yancey in an interview last week. "I'm not an authority on the subject… but my position on the ballot question is that I would not condone the use of marijuana, but it would take it out of a criminal court room and put it in a civil court room. Putting it in a criminal court is great for the law enforcement industry, but it doesn't do a whole lot to rehabilitate people who are having a problem with drug addiction."

But opponents say arrests for cannabis are rare and first-time offenders are often let off easy in the current system. First timers records are sealed as a rule after six months if they do not repeat the offense. The Massachusetts District Attorneys Association and others argue that the initiative, if passed, would encourage dealers to hit the streets carrying the smaller amounts and that weed today is far stronger, with more of its active ingredient, THC, than it contained in the heady days of Cheech & Chong and Jeff Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

"An ounce is not a small amount of marijuana," said Emmet Folgert, who works with teens as the director of the Dorchester Youth Collaborative in Fields Corner. "Just in terms of the culture in Dorchester of teens, I'm concerned that this could lead to increased selling. CORI is a serious problem, but I don't want to solve a problem by grafting another one on to it."

But the idea that the bill would condone dealing is a total fallacy, according to Whitney Taylor, chairwoman for the Committee for Sensible Marijuana Policy.

"In Massachusetts sales are sales are sales," said Taylor. "It doesn't matter if it's a joint or a pound, it's sales and that doesn't fall under Question 2. Our law enforcement officers have been able to tell the difference between personal possession and sales and they will continue to do that. It's not like we have Keystone Kops here, we've always had those laws."

Though it would no longer appear in a CORI report under Question 2, marijuana possession under an ounce would become a public record if it became a civil offense. Opponents of the measure say this could also hurt the chances of those applying for jobs, although it is not currently common practice among employers to check public records. Many jobs, however, such as youth worker and teacher, require CORI checks.

State Rep. Marty Walsh, for one, doesn't buy the CORI argument."I know for a fact that no one in the last three years has been sent to jail for less than an ounce of marijuana," said Walsh. "What happens is, it's a misdemeanor and they go through drug counseling and it's wiped off their record."

Sentiment against the measure has come from several quarters, including teen programs, law enforcement and groups like the Black Ministerial Alliance and the Ten-Point Coalition.

"We've been catching a lot of flak from black religious leaders for our support [of the initiative]," said Horace Small of the Union of Minority Neighborhoods. "But we've been dealing with CORI reform for three years now. Massachusetts is the only state in the union that you live with it for the rest of your life… This is about the idea that someone who gets caught with a joint is a criminal. It's insane."

Then there's the money-that-could-be-saved argument, particularly poignant this year as concerns about economic recession and state budget cutbacks continue to grow. Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron, a paid researcher for the Committee for Sensible Marijuana Policy (CSMP), penned a study showing $29.5 million in savings for the state if decriminalization passes. The committee took the same tack when they aired commercials featuring two retired Boston police officers last week who said, essentially, that their job is to catch the real bad guys, not mellowed-out potheads.

Mayor Thomas Menino's press secretary, Dot Joyce, attacked the ads for using the BPD logo without Menino or BPD's permission. The logo appeared in the commercial on a 1980s era police car in an old photo of one of the officers. The district attorneys, through their association, disputed the credibility of the study.

Other sources inside law enforcement counter that the proposed law may open doors to new costs, such as a provision that mandates drug awareness programs and community service for juveniles caught with the drug.

"It'll become a program so you'll involve a bureaucracy," said one parole officer in the city, who also said marijuana charges already take up a good deal of time in the system. "We chase around people all day to go do their community service."

But that's an upside, according to Taylor, who said the quality of drug awareness programs vary across the state for teens and adults who are ordered by judges to complete them. The new law would require a 4-hour course administered by the Department of Youth Services and 10 hours of community service for juveniles (17 and under) caught with under an ounce of marijuana.

"It will be a scary benefit of Question 2. Why is there even one community out there that doesn't have a drug education program?" she said.

Aside from the facts surrounding the initiative itself, the Question 2 campaign has also seen a few sparks fly over tactics. The CSMP filed a complaint that charged the opposition camp failed to notify the Office of Campaign and Political Finance that they were raising money until early September, when in fact their first check had been collected back in mid July. The claim checks out with OCPF public records. Attorney General Martha Coakley has not announced any action on that complaint so far.

Opponents from the Coalition for Safe Streets shot back, harping on the fact that George Soros of New York is the largest contributor to the CSMP, giving over $400,000 to the campaign.

Despite the outside support and the full court press from big-name electeds, opinion polls are still looking good for decriminalization. The latest poll from 7 News and Suffolk University on Oct. 23 showed 51 percent in support and 32 percent against, a 19-point lead for decriminalization. Taylor said she is confident Question 2 will pass, but the ballot won't be decided until the last vote is cast.

That 19-point lead was a 50-point lead a month earlier in the same poll, and the Coalition for Safe Streets, representing the opponents, is pressing hard with last-minute advertisements on TV and radio this week with simple inflammatory messages such as "Question 2 tells kids it's okay to use marijuana." An e-email to press outlets contained the unproven claim that "passage of Question 2 will put more drivers, especially kids, behind the wheel of a car high on marijuana, putting us all in danger."

The CSMP may also be poised to spend more on advertising. The committee had over $120,000 as of Oct. 15, according to OCPF public records, compared to just $7,800 in the coffers of the Coalition for Safe Streets.

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