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2 sides to pot question; Police, ACLU vie on Question 2.

Byline: Aaron Nicodemus

A ballot question that would decriminalize - but not legalize - possession of small amounts of marijuana is vehemently opposed by members of law enforcement, who say the new law would encourage drug use.

Supporters of Question 2 argue that replacing criminal penalties for possession of one ounce or less of marijuana with a new system of civil penalties would prevent a relatively minor offense from ballooning into a stumbling block to future jobs and college scholarships. And they say that drug use has not increased in 11 other states that have decriminalized marijuana, including New York.

If passed, the new system of civil penalties would exclude information regarding the civil offense from the state's criminal record information system. Offenders age 18 or older would be subject to forfeiture of the marijuana plus a civil penalty of $100. Offenders under the age of 18 would be subject to the same forfeiture and, if they complete a drug awareness program within one year of the offense, the same $100 penalty.

Sutton Police Chief Dennis Towle, like many in law enforcement, is opposed to Question 2.

"I don't think it's refutable that marijuana is a gateway drug," he said. "I think passing this would undoubtedly lead to increased usage in teenagers, and will undoubtedly lead to more of them getting behind the wheel of a car."

The law currently gives police officers and the courts plenty of discretion in handling marijuana possession, he said. Of the 59 criminal cases of drug possession in Sutton this year, 30 were arrested, and 29 were summoned to court with a citation.

Chief Towle said that his officers probably confiscated and destroyed marijuana from at least that many individuals over the course of the year without arresting or summoning them.

"I think we have pretty lenient drug laws already," he said.

Beverly Chorbajian is a Worcester defense attorney and member of the Worcester County chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

She says the current system punishes an offender long after the arrest, booking and court arraignment. "You can lose job prospects, college funding. Kids need to finish school. They don't need a relatively minor offense to get in the way of that."

Ronal Madnick, director of the Worcester County chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said that the current penalties for marijuana possession are too strict.

"Even if this passed, marijuana would still be illegal," he said. "It doesn't change the other laws. Selling? Driving under the influence? They're not changed by this at all."

Mr. Madnick said passing Question 2 would save the state $30 million a year, according to a study by Harvard professor Jeffrey A. Miron.

"It's really a drain on the police and the courts," he said.

Opponents of Question 2, like Worcester District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr., said that passing Question 2 sends a bad message.

"What we don't want to have is a law that says it's OK to smoke marijuana."

He said the $30 million savings touted by proponents of Question 2 is overblown. "We question the numbers. We don't give them a lot of credit."

If the real issue behind Question 2 is removing the stigma of a marijuana-related arrest, than effort should be made to fix that law, he said.

"You shouldn't fix the CORI law by decriminalizing marijuana."

For a report on Question 3, see tomorrow's Telegram & Gazette.
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Title Annotation:LOCAL NEWS
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Oct 26, 2008
Words:566
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