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February 23, 2006 - Dover-Sherborn Press (MA)

40 Years Of Reefer Madness

By Rick Holmes, MetroWest Daily News Columnist

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Save us from politicians sending messages. They were at it again last week, debating a bill that would provide civil fines, instead of criminal records, for those caught possessing small amounts of marijuana.

"That's the wrong message to send to our kids," Attorney General Tom Reilly said. "We have to keep them out of drugs."

State Rep. Karyn Polito, R-Shrewsbury, agreed, saying the bill "sends the wrong message."

Let's get real: Politicians don't send messages, especially to kids, who couldn't name their state representative if their iPods depended on it.

For 40 years, politicians have been "sending messages" to kids about the dangers of pot and for 40 years, the kids have been ignoring them. State legislators and attorneys general don't send messages; they pass laws and prosecute people caught breaking them.

The law they have now said they can send you to prison for six months and fine you $500 for possession of a single joint - on top of your lawyer's fees, of course. Another law makes anyone convicted of marijuana possession ineligible for federal college loans or grants.

Nice message they are sending: Anyone who smokes pot shouldn't be able to go to college.

Reilly is worried about sending messages to kids, but the law he supports applies to adults as well. A federal study released last year found that 12 percent of adults in the greater Boston area had smoked marijuana in the previous month.

Twelve percent broke the law by choosing this relatively benign alternative to a cocktail. What message are the politicians sending to millions of adults?

That they can't decide for themselves which mild intoxicant to enjoy.

That their government believes they must be treated like children - or criminals.

The adults aren't listening to the politicians' message any more than the kids are. Some of them have been laughing at "reefer madness" propaganda for 40 years, and the passage of time hasn't made it any more convincing.

In fact, the aging of the baby boomers has given science its first opportunity to measure the impact of long-term drug use.

In a recent review of the research, Time magazine reported that, while cocaine and heroin are as dangerous as originally thought, "the so-called demon weed turned out to be a lot less devilish than advertised."

The popular image of the goofy, smoky slacker notwithstanding, a 2003 study in the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society found that "even among regular users, there is no proof that pot causes irreversible cognitive damage," Time writes. Long-term use can affect memory, but those effects fade if the user stops.

Marijuana can be addictive for some, said psychologist Peter Provet, president of Odyssey House. "But a lot of people who use pot don't become addicts."

Forty years doesn't seem to have changed the politics of drug laws. State legislators all seem to have this Nixon-era belief that if they support any marijuana reform bill the voters will decide they are hippies and the narcs will search their sock drawers. But the voters are way ahead of them.

Over the last five years, voters in 26 Massachusetts districts, including those represented by Sen. Richard Moore, D-Uxbridge, Rep. Debby Blumer, D-Framingham, and Rep. Jim Vallee, D-Franklin, have been asked in ballot questions whether they support a reform bill similar to the one now before the Legislature. In every case, voters supported the reforms by a healthy margin.

Moore, Blumer and Vallee all promptly said they would ignore the wishes of the voters in their districts.

Something about sending a message, if I recall. Vallee, who was then chairman of the criminal justice committee, said it probably didn't have the votes to pass, so he wouldn't allow his committee to consider it. But something has changed.

Vallee's criminal justice committee was eliminated and a new committee on mental health and substance abuse was created.

The new committee is concerned with getting effective treatment to people who are addicted and ill. It approaches substance abuse as an issue of public health, not public morality. It's more interested in helping people than in sending messages by locking them up. That committee last week endorsed the decriminalization bill, but given the wimpishness of the other legislators, it may go no further.

Asked about the bill, Rep. David Linsky, D-Natick, declined to take a position. "I'm not sure the bill will get to the floor," he said hopefully.

Even this bill, which would change the penalty for possession of less than an ounce of marijuana to a $250 fine, is a weak compromise with common sense. The common-sense approach would recognize that, by almost any measure, marijuana is no worse than beer.

And the legitimate concerns about pot -- purity, potency and abuse by children -- could most easily be addressed by treating it exactly like beer. Kids have told me it's easier to get hold of pot than alcohol.

There's a reason for that: Alcohol is sold by liquor store owners who face heavy fines and lost business if they are caught selling to anyone under 21. There's also a reason why the jump to hard drugs is easier for pot-smokers than drinkers: The man at the liquor store might want to talk you into a finer wine or fancier brew, but he doesn't stock cocaine or crystal meth.

Why not let him put some regulated, taxed marijuana in his humidor along with the cigars? But common sense and sound public policy go out the window when politicians fall under the sway of reefer madness.

They are too busy sending messages no one is listening to and locking up otherwise responsible citizens.

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