Quelling Qualms

A look at marijuana decriminalization in Massachusetts
On Nov. 4, 2008, Massachusetts became the twelfth state to decriminalize possession of less than an ounce of marijuana. Known as the Massachusetts Sensible Marijuana Policy Initiative, Proposition 2 was passed by a sweeping 65-35 margin, a more decisive showing than even Barack Obama in the famously blue state. The widely used drug is still illegal, but offenders now only pay a $100 penalty; minors face a stiffer fine of $1000 unless they attend an approved drug awareness program.
The months preceding last year’s landmark election day were marked by contentious debate over the potential upshots of the new law. Nearly a year later, despite the many concerns raised by the opponents of Proposition 2, most of the predicted negative effects have not come to fruition. In spite of some transitional problems with implementation, decriminalization has been successfully integrated into the state’s legal system, and all signs indicate that it is here to stay.
An Uncertain Beginning
Although popular support for Proposition 2 was overwhelming, implementation of the new law faced challenges. As Lieutenant Thomas Nolan, formerly of the Boston Police Department, told the HPR, “Lots of the nuts and bolts issues caused some confusion at first – what did citation books look like, how would they be printed and issued, where would the records be housed – essentially problems with law enforcement.” Such problems are, by their nature, temporary.
Further complicating implementation, towns across Massachusetts, encouraged by local law enforcement officials, created more stringent laws against smoking marijuana in public to emphasize that the drug remains illegal. Chicopee and Holyoke are just two of a growing number of cities that have passed ordinances adding a local fine of up to $300 for public use. Bruce Mirken, Director of Communications at the Committee for Sensible Marijuana Policy, a Massachusetts group central in promoting the proposition, commented to the HPR, “It really felt like some in law enforcement were trying to resist the change in laws any ways they could.” Yet Officer James Kenneally of the Boston Police Department dismissed these claims, telling the HPR, “Laws are made; our job is to enforce them.”
Students Seem Safe
During the run-up to the vote, a coalition consisting of the District Attorneys of Massachusetts, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, and Governor Deval Patrick, issued a collective statement arguing that decriminalization would embolden drug dealers to “use our kids to sell their product with minimal risk of meaningful consequences.” Thus far, however, the new law has led to few such complaints regarding minors.
When asked if Proposition 2 had affected the state’s schools, Paul Andrews, Director of Professional Development and Government Relations for the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, told the HPR, “It’s not an issue that has come to our attention, at this level, from superintendents.” Joe Casey, Superintendent of Melrose public schools, agrees; as he recounted to the HPR, “it hasn’t been a huge problem for us.” Casey went on to describe a new policy in his schools that would force athletes to sit out two games if they were caught in the presence of marijuana. “We’ve taken a harder stance in terms of making good choices,” Casey said.

Looking Ahead
Despite a contentious debate, the passage of decriminalization by ballot initiative clearly demonstrated public support. Lieutenant Nolan argued that it also showed the state’s young people the possibility of effecting change through the ballot. Mirken has a less optimistic take; as he put it, “I think what it really shows is how out of touch politicians are, in general, with the public. … The voters are ready to rethink what we’re doing, but the politicians haven’t caught up yet.” Mirken’s allies elsewhere in the country will likely continue to push for decriminalization on a state-by-state basis. In Massachusetts, meanwhile, the change in laws has opened the way for debates on medical marijuana and legalization. Yet Proposition 2 showed that proponents of these causes would have to build strong public support to overwhelm politicians’ opposition. Repeating this feat seems far from certain. For the time being, as Lieutenant Nolan put it, “Possessing marijuana is still illegal, but now it’s more like going through a stop sign than it is robbing a bank. We aren’t condoning the act, just lowering the offenses for committing it.”

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