Boston, MA -- Advocates for the decriminalization of marijuana, savoring their success this week in Massachusetts, said they look forward to a day under an Obama administration and a Democrat-led Congress when it's no longer a federal crime to possess small amounts of the drug.
They cited a bill introduced in the spring by Representative Barney Frank, which would decriminalize possession of marijuana in amounts of 3.5 ounces or less anywhere in the United States. The bill, if it became law, would end federal prosecution of such crimes, but it would not supersede state laws.
The advocates said they hope the bill would lead to hearings and spark more support from fellow lawmakers in the coming session.
"We anticipate the bill will be reintroduced fairly early in the next session," said Keith Stroup, legal counsel and founder of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), which has long lobbied for the legalization and decriminalization of marijuana. "Then what we expect is that we will be able to get legislative hearings this session, and maybe a vote on the floor of the House."
He said his organization, which helped Frank draft his bill, is looking for a sponsor in the Senate.
But Frank said in a telephone interview that he doesn't foresee his bill passing anytime soon. The Newton Democrat said it will take a lot more time before enough of his fellow lawmakers want to take a stand on the issue.
"What needs to happen is that constituents who support this need to make more calls," Frank said. "This is a case of people being ahead of the politicians."
This week, Massachusetts became the 13th state in the country to decriminalize marijuana when voters approved Question 2 on the ballot, which made getting caught with less than an ounce of marijuana punishable by a civil fine of $100.
The change in the law means someone found carrying multiple joints will no longer be reported to the state's criminal history board. The law will require those younger than age 18 to complete a drug awareness program and community service, and for those who don't, the fine will increase to as much as $1,000.
The vote in Massachusetts follows a form of decriminalization that passed seven years ago in Nevada, where it remains a felony for anyone under age 21 to possess marijuana. The other states - Maine, New York, California, North Carolina, Oregon, Ohio, Arizona, Colorado, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska - decriminalized marijuana in the 1970s, according to NORML.
Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML, said the only other statewide efforts he knows of are in New Hampshire, where a bill to decriminalize marijuana passed the House, and in Vermont, where a similar bill passed the state Senate. Both bills were tabled when they didn't receive support in the other chamber, he said.
The group's main effort in recent years has been passing laws in municipalities such as Amherst, Mass.; Seattle; Oakland; Denver; Columbia, Mo.; Missoula, Mont.; Fayetteville, Ark.; and Santa Barbra and Santa Cruz, Calif. Those communities made prosecution of their state's marijuana possession laws their "lowest law enforcement priority."
Some activists, however, argue that decriminalization efforts have hurt the larger goal of legalizing marijuana.
"Decriminalization does make it easier on the people who get caught, but it makes it harder to get activists on board to change the laws," said Don Christen, founder of Maine Vocals and Maine Citizens for Medical Marijuana. "When it's decriminalized, people just pay the fines and aren't as concerned about legalization."
But Stroup said decriminalization is the right strategy.
He hopes overturning the federal law, which makes marijuana an offense punishable by up to a year in prison and a $1,000 fine on the first conviction, will prod more states to relax their laws.
"There are enormous costs simply to keep the pressure on for legalization," Stroup said. "Our goal is to stop all the arrests of responsible marijuana smokers."
Posted by CN Staff on November 08, 2008 at 06:20:31 PT
By David Abel, Globe Staff
Source: Boston Globe