POT DECRIMINALIZING MEASURE UP FOR DEBATE Lawmakers on Beacon Hill today will debate a proposal to decriminalize possession of less than an ounce of marijuana, a measure advocates say would save the state at least $24 million a year and prevent pot smokers from losing government student loans and scholarships. The bill, filed in the Senate, would make marijuana possession a civil offense punishable by a $100 fine. "As far as public opinion is concerned, this should pass," said Whitney Taylor, executive director of the Drug Policy Forum of Massachusetts. "Voters are way ahead of the politicians on this." Voters in six legislative districts approved nonbinding measures in favor of marijuana decriminalization last November, according to the Drug Policy Forum. Since 2000, there have been 36 ballot questions regarding decriminalization, medical marijuana and marijuana taxation and regulation, and voters approved every one, the group said. But the bill being debated today has been around six years without being implemented, and lawmakers are reluctant to pass it. "I haven't signed on as a cosponsor of that bill," said state Rep. Deborah Blumer, D-Framingham. "The problem that I have is that we are having significant problems with the abuse of substances and drugs and alcohol and cigarettes, and I'm not prepared to take steps to change the laws on marijuana right now." A recent federal study found that Boston has the highest rates of pot smoking in the country. Today's debate, taking place during an 11 a.m. State House hearing in front of the Joint Committee on Mental Health and Substance Abuse, comes quickly on the heels of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing federal prosecution of people who use marijuana medically, even in states that legalized medicinal use of the drug. Eleven states, including California, Maine, New York, Colorado and Mississippi, have passed decriminalization measures similar to the one on Beacon Hill without seeing measurable increases in marijuana use, Taylor said. But Sen. Karen Spilka, D-Ashland, a former lawyer, said the Supreme Court decision could put state decriminalization laws on shaky legal ground. "I am uncertain the state can take it out of the criminal system if the U.S. Supreme Court has stated this is a federal criminal offense and the states don't have the choice over medicinal use of marijuana, which is a stronger argument, even," Spilka said. "I think states are going to be really wary of making changes until more comes out about this decision." Between 1995 and 2002, there were 70,794 Massachusetts residents arrested for simple marijuana possession, Taylor said. Research that will be presented today indicates the state would save at least $24.3 million in annual law enforcement and court costs by decriminalizing weed, she said. Though possession of marijuana for personal use usually doesn't lead to jail time, those convicted can lose government student loans and scholarships and become ineligible for many forms of military service and private and public sector jobs, according to the Drug Policy Forum. They also may be at risk of losing driver's and professional licenses and custody of their children, the group said. "Although many people don't go to prison for simple possession of drugs, a felony conviction is very harmful," Taylor said. "People think, 'Oh, they're not going to jail.' But it really does affect you."