Massachusetts Lawyer Backs Reduced Penalties For Marijuana Possession

This story was written by Stefanie Tuder, The Daily Free Press
A Massachusetts lawmaker is backing an act to lessen charges for marijuana possession based on a 2003 study conducted by a former Boston University professor.

The act proposes a $100 civil fine for possessing less than an ounce of marijuana. Under Massachusetts law, possession of marijuana is a criminal offense and may lead to jail time.

Jeffrey Miron, a former College of Arts and Sciences economics professor who studied the budgetary implications of legalizing marijuana in the state, estimates that Massachusetts would save $120.6 million per year in government spending on criminal justice enforcement if marijuana is decriminalized.

"I basically looked at the fraction of arrests in Massachusetts that are for marijuana possession and took that possession and multiplied it by the police budget in Massachusetts," Miron said.

Sen. Patricia Jehlen, D-Middlesex, has filed the bill four times without success.

"It got a favorable report from the Committee on Mental Health and Substance Abuse the first time it was filed under my predecessor," Jehlen said. "My bill went to the Judiciary Committee and never came out."

The bill is modeled after a referendum question that was supported by 67 percent in Somerville and by a wide margin in 52 other Massachusetts communities in 2005.

Many states have enacted laws to decriminalize marijuana, including California, Maine, New York and North Carolina.

"In a rational universe, people would read [Miron's study] and say, 'Let's spend our money better on public safety and really make a difference,'" Jehlen said.

BU School of Public Health associate dean Leonard Glantz said the decriminalization of marijuana may prevent users from having their lives destroyed once they are involved in the criminal justice system.

People with criminal records are ineligible for government student loans and military service. Local, state and federal employees found in possession of marijuana are also at risk of losing drivers licenses, the right to vote and custody of children.

Jehlen said the bill would be more likely to pass as part of a comprehensive reform package on sentencing practices.

Miron said he does not foresee a change in drug laws, but said the bill is worth the effort.

"So far there's been a lot of discussion and various studies similar to mine, but we haven't seen much change," he said. "I don't see any reason why it'll be much different this time, but you've got to try."
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