by by Beatrice Igne-Bianchi

illustration by by Alexander Guerrero

Last Tuesday, 65 percent of Massachusetts voters passed a ballot measure decriminalizing the possession of an ounce or less of marijuana. The Massachusetts Sensible Marijuana Policy Initiative, known as Question 2, will go into effect next month. At that time, any person in Massachusetts who is caught with a small amount (and yes, a "small amount" is an ounce or less, in legal terms) of marijuana will no longer face criminal charges. Instead, the marijuana will be confiscated and the offender will pay a civil fine of $100--the equivalent of the base fine for a speeding ticket in the state. Minors will be required to notify their parents, who will be charged a steeper fine of $1000, unless the possessor agrees to complete a drug awareness program, in which case the fine will be waved. Until the legislation goes into effect, possession of any amount of the drug in the state is punishable by a $500 fine and up to six months in prison.

As progressive as Massachusetts's marijuana legislation may seem to the current generation, this type of policy change has happened before. In the 1970s, many states reduced the punishment for possession of small amounts of marijuana using legislation nearly identical to that adopted by Massachusetts. In 1972, President Richard Nixon established the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse to study marijuana abuse in the US in order to judge whether marijuana should remain in Schedule I, the most restrictive category of drugs. Raymond P. Shafer, the Commission's chairman, released the study's findings in a report called "Marijuana, A Signal of Misunderstanding," which favored decriminalization of the drug and the adoption of alternative measures to help discourage marijuana use.

Many states embraced the commission's findings. Oregon became the first state to decriminalize the drug in 1973. Five years later, Alaska, California, Colorado, Mississippi, New York, Nebraska, North Carolina and Ohio established some form of marijuana decriminalization. Despite the commission's report, Nixon and Congress ignored its suggestions, eventually leading the President to declare his famous War on Drugs.

Brown University Professor Emeritus of Medicine and Community Health, David C. Lewis, M.D., told the Independent that he is in favor of the Massachusetts reform, stating that it is a "return to what we had before." But opponents of Question 2, including Attorney General Martha Coakley and all eleven of the Massachusetts's district attorneys, fear the measure will lead to an increase in drug abuse among teenagers and young adults. They claim that the marijuana now sold on the streets is at least three times more potent than what was being passed around in the 1970s and that it is a gateway to hard drugs like cocaine and LSD.

Lewis countered that, "it's one thing to say we don't want people to use drugs and it's another thing to lock them up if they do," noting that historically, the decriminalization of marijuana has not spiked an increase in the drug's use. Furthermore, he said that Massachusetts's new legislation "makes perfect sense now," since strict prohibition laws over the past few decades have impeded sensible drug policy.

In Massachusetts, decriminalization means that individuals who are guilty of possessing an ounce or less of marijuana will no longer be prevented from getting student loans, securing jobs or gaining access to public housing--all of which is almost impossible to do with a criminal record. In addition, the state's taxpayers will be able to save approximately $30 million in legal costs connected with marijuana arrests, according to the Associated Press. Furthermore, the legislation will allow officials to focus on more serious and violent crimes.

Could Rhode Island--which allows patients to legally use marijuana for medical reasons--follow its neighbor's lead? Greg Anderson B'09, an officer of Brown University's Chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) is not banking on it. Anderson said, "It is unlikely that this initiative will encourage a similar initiative in Rhode Island. Medical marijuana is the primary concern of drug law reformers in Rhode Island, and, in the future, we expect to see other harm-reduction strategies on the agenda."

While Anderson thinks that decriminalization of marijuana is not on Rhode Island's agenda just yet, Anderson said that the state "does have a relatively open-minded approach to drug policy, and I would not be surprised if a similar initiative began in the next decade."

District attorneys are concerned with how the new legislation will affect the state's legal structure when Question 2 takes effect next month. Attorney General Martha Coakley said in a written statement that, "Question 2's passage not only authorizes the decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana, but also establishes a parallel civil regulatory structure that does not currently exist," as reported by the Associated Press. Massachusetts will have to undergo a structural makeover--adjusting the legal system to incorporate the new law, and restructuring drug awareness programs for the state's youth are just the beginning of the list.

Same-sex marriage and decriminalizing marijuana have finally made BEATRICE IGNE-BIANCHI B'10 proud to be a Masshole.