Voters Could Relax Marijuana Penalties

 

Ballot questions next month will give voters in California, Massachusetts and Michigan a chance to revisit their states' policies on marijuana.

If approved, the measures are likely to exacerbate tensions between states and the federal government over the drug.

In California and Massachusetts , voters will decide Nov. 4 whether to join 10 other states that have decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana, according to the Marijuana Policy Project , a national advocacy group working to legalize the drug. Instead of facing arrest and time behind bars, those caught with up to an ounce of marijuana would be subject to civil fines of $100 or less - similar to those paid for traffic violations.

In Michigan, voters could make the state the first in the Great Lakes region to authorize "medical marijuana." Proposal 1 on the state's ballot would allow residents to cultivate marijuana plants and use the drug - with a doctor's recommendation - to treat pain from cancer, HIV and other diseases. California authorized medical marijuana in 1996 and 11 states have followed, including New Mexico and Rhode Island last year.

This year's attempts to relax laws against marijuana use are being funded in part by billionaire investor George Soros, who has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the proposals in Massachusetts and California. The Golden State 's Proposition 5, besides decriminalizing marijuana, also would reduce criminal penalties for thousands of nonviolent drug offenders and require public money to help violators break drug and alcohol addictions.

But fierce opposition to the pro-marijuana measures is coming from police officers, prosecutors and many elected officials, who see threats to public safety in the proposals. Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D) and Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) oppose the proposals in their states, while California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) has not weighed in on Proposition 5.

Critics say the initiatives could have a host of negative consequences - from encouraging more teenagers to experiment with the drug to causing more marijuana-related car crashes or workplace accidents. The Massachusetts District Attorneys Association , which opposes Question 2 on the state's ballot, has issued a point-by-point rebuttal to the initiative.

In Michigan, opponents of Proposal 1 this month formed a coalition called Citizens Protecting Michigan's Kids to urge the public to reject the legalization of marijuana for medical use. The group argues, among other things, that taxpayers will have to pay for a new bureaucracy to regulate medical marijuana users.

But those who support easing penalties for marijuana say the initiatives would replace overly strict state laws and actually would save state and local governments millions of dollars in law enforcement costs for arresting and jailing low-level offenders. Marijuana users, they say, often pose little threat to society and face disproportionate punishment, including becoming ineligible for federal student loans because of marijuana arrests.

One thing appears certain: The proposals in California, Massachusetts and Michigan, if approved by voters, will add to the tension between states and the federal government over marijuana policies.

The federal government treats marijuana as an illegal controlled substance, and the Drug Enforcement Agency has carried out raids on those who grow and sell the drug - including in states that have approved its medical use. Federal authorities are free to make such arrests, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2005, because federal law supersedes state policies. But states still may enact their own rules that are followed by state and local law enforcers.

The case of a California man who owned a medical marijuana distribution business is a glaring example of the incongruity between state and federal marijuana laws. The man, Charles Lynch, was convicted in August on federal charges that he sold $2.1 million worth of marijuana to his customers - even though his business was sanctioned under state law and even subject to state taxes. Lynch faces up to 85 years behind bars when he is sentenced later this month.

Those working to win approval for this year's state ballot measures say prosecutions such as Lynch's are rare. State and local police - not federal authorities - carry out 99 percent of marijuana-related arrests, meaning this year's initiatives would provide "an enormous amount of protection" against prosecution, said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance Network , an advocacy group backing California's measure.

Piper likened recent state efforts to decriminalize marijuana and allow its medical use to the repeal of Prohibition 75 years ago.

"States, one after the other, said we're not going to arrest people for alcohol anymore. Eventually alcohol prohibition wound down, because the federal government couldn't do it anymore," Piper said. "That's probably what's going to happen with marijuana prohibition as well."

The 12 states that allow marijuana as pain relief are Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Washington and Vermont.

The 10 states that have decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana are Alaska, Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, New York , North Carolina, Ohio and Oregon. California decriminalized marijuana in the 1970s, but Piper said the current law does not prevent those caught with the drug from being arrested and spending at least some time in jail - which, he said, would end under Proposition 5.

 
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