Voters Speak: It's High Time for Decriminalization

You might not have been able to hear them on Election Day over the din of Republicans cheering and clapping, but if you listened closely enough, there they were: hundreds of lighters clicking aflame in celebration.

“The people have spoken," Bill Downing, president of MassCANN (Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition) declared. Indeed, in 21 districts across Massachusetts voters strongly supported non-binding, public policy questions on their ballots pertaining to marijuana. In 19 of these districts, two decriminalization questions were posed, while questions concerning medicinal marijuana and the cultivation of hemp were on ballots in two other districts.

The first decriminalization question asked if state representatives should introduce and vote for legislation making possession of marijuana a civil violation, like a traffic ticket, as opposed to a criminal offense. The other question concerns possession of marijuana, inquiring if state representatives should introduce and vote for legislation making possession of less than one ounce of marijuana a civil violation and subject to a fine no more than $100, with no criminal penalties. People voted overwhelmingly in favor of both decriminalization questions, by more than 60 percent. And with good reason, it appears. According to a recent report by the Drug Policy Forum of Massachusetts, such a change to the criminal code on marijuana use and possession would save the Commonwealth more than $24 million annually. No more arrests or costly court cases, and police could focus their energies on serious crime.

In the 14th Worcester district, which includes Worcester and West Boylston, voters were asked if their state representative should vote for legislation allowing patients with certain diseases and letters of recommendation from their doctors to legally possess and grow small amounts of marijuana for their personal use. Again, over 60 percent of voters were in favor of this type of legislation.

The only question that was not approved by a large margin pertained to the ballots in the second Franklin district. Voters were surveyed as to whether their state representative should support legislation allowing for the cultivation of cannabis for commercial and industrial purposes. The towns of Athol, Orange and Erving were opposed but were countered by approval from Greenfield, Gill and Warwick.

So where did these questions come from? In order to pose non-binding, public policy questions on ballots, petitions with 200-250 (depending on the district) signatures must be collected. Enter MassCANN, the state affiliate of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). MassCANN amassed hundreds of signed petitions to get these questions out there and make the state reps aware of what the people want.

The good folk of MassCANN were elated by the widespread support of the ballot questions and have already started to think ahead, especially Downing.

“Before the next election, we do have some things to work out. Basically there are 20 more representatives who need to support decriminalization; we need all representatives behind one bill to co-sponsor a decriminalization bill. Some of the representatives will hem and haw, so we will have to do some public relations-type work with them to let them know that they are not representing their constituency fairly."

Downing also wants state representatives to recognize that the legislative process and the public policy questions are “well advertised, and if a certain representative blocks the initiative, they are almost guaranteed bad press, especially if their constituency wants a decrim bill to pass."

MassCANN is a public education organization, so political work is not their main function, but Downing projects that in the next two years they will continue their educational work as well as try to get a political party, like the Democrats, to add to their platforms issues concerning medicinal marijuana and marijuana law reform.

As for now, Downing asserts that the most important thing is for people to write to their representatives, asking them to please co-sponsor a bill to decriminalize marijuana. “The numbers are there," says Downing. “The vox populi is known." If all of the state representatives fail to co-sponsor such a bill then Downing is resolute, “We will try to prepare for a statewide ballot initiative."

Two statewide initiatives failed on Election Day, Question 9 in Nevada and Proposition 203 in Arizona. If Question 9 had passed, Nevada would have been the first state with legal marijuana, while Proposition 203 was concerned with medicinal marijuana and making possession of marijuana a civil violation.

Therefore, the people of Massachusetts should hold their heads high (pun intended?), and be proud of themselves and their voting peers, disregarding Mitt Romney, of course. Massachusetts is the cool kid on the block now, and hopefully every state is going to want to be just like us.

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