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September 20, 2008 -- Standard-Times (MA)

Column: What Is Law Enforcement Smoking To Oppose Question 2?

By Jack Spillane

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

All the suits who make a living -- monetarily, politically and otherwise -- off the criminal marijuana laws were there the other day.

There must have been 30 of them. Standing on the steps of the New Bedford Superior Court like a phalanx of armed guards, ready to protect the public against the enemy.

Protect us against what?

Why, those horrible marijuana laws, the ones that if we don't keep in place, everyone in Massachusetts under 18 will soon be heading for the corner drug dealer. As if any kid who wants to doesn't do that now.

You know the criminal marijuana possession laws.

They're the same laws that 11 other states have already eliminated (some of them as long ago as the 1970s) with little to no change in the rates of drug use.

You know the kind of places where they've decriminalized small amounts of marijuana, exotic places like Maine and Ohio. But don't go downeast on vacation -- those Maine drug gangs are out of control!

Other states that have decriminalized marijuana include such libertine hotbeds as Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, Nebraska and Minnesota.

But there they stood the other day, Bristol and Barnstable counties' finest, all the folks employed by this big, big government business we call the War on Drugs. They as much as warned that we could become like China during the opium wars if those marijuana penalties are loosened.

These are the folks who are currently in charge of this so-called battle against drugs, the war that the country has failed to win for half a century. They were competing with each other for most alarmist comment of the day.

"This will lead to more violence," said Bristol County District Attorney Sam Sutter, dismissing out of hand the views of many mainstream citizens that prosecuting marijuana possession is both unreasonable and prohibitively expensive.

Mr. Sutter is nothing if not determined to prove he's tough on crime.

"This ridiculous initiative would put our children and young people in dangerous situations" with violent marijuana dealers, he intoned.

And "I don't want to hear," he said, those "specious" and "bogus" arguments that marijuana is like alcohol. Alcohol, he informed the media event, can have health benefits. You know, like wine, he said.

And tobacco? Why, that takes a long time to do damage, he informed.

Ah, Sam, say it ain't so.

Not to be outdone, Fall River Mayor Bob Correia trotted out the time-tested "gateway" argument.

"Marijuana," he said, is "the one they start our children off with!"

Ah, the children. It's always the children.

So on went the show, speaker after speaker pointing out that hard drug users are also marijuana users and that they inhabit a violent economy.

So what? These hoods are also alcohol users, and maybe a lot of them like pizza, too.

The only guy to bring a modicum of reality to the proceedings was Barnstable County Sheriff Jim Cummings. He sounded as if he knew he was trapped in a politically-correct soap box but dared not get out.

"This morning, in the Barnstable County correctional facility, no one there was serving time for 1 ounce or less of marijuana," he said.

The sheriff was conceding that no one even prosecutes for 1 ounce or less of marijuana now! But he quickly slipped back into the gateway argument, saying it's just "common sense" that decriminalizing marijuana sends the wrong message about other DRUGS!

So what presaged this courthouse gathering, along with the unanimous opposition to decriminalization of every sheriff and district attorney in the state?

Why, Ballot Question 2 of the Committee for Sensible Marijuana Policy.

The committee in November is putting an outrageous question before the people. "Wouldn't it make sense to make possession of an ounce or less of marijuana a civil offense punishable by a $100 fine?"

Here's a couple of facts to chew:

Jeffrey Miron, an economics lecturer at Harvard, estimates the state spent $29.5 million on 17,229 arrests involving marijuana possession in 2006. Now, many of those folks were undoubtedly charged with multiple crimes and the marijuana charge was used as leverage, but isn't that a little like charging social drinkers with drunken driving at an accident scene even though their blood alcohol is below the .08 limit?

A 2008 study -- undertaken by, among others, the National Research Council -- cited multiple research that found no clear relationship between drug criminalization and drug use. "As in the case of underage alcohol and tobacco use, current enforcement may have a stronger effect on where people carry or use drugs, rather than on whether they do so," the study concluded.

All the blue-shirts in the world speaking authoritatively won't change the fact that the 50-year drug war has failed relentlessly.

The simple fact is -- as was proven during equally crime-ridden Prohibition -- you can't enforce a law the public is determined to ignore.

The law enforcement types have it wrong. It's the Committee for Sensible Marijuana Policy that knows what it's talking about.

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