Holmes: Marijuana skirmish in the war on drugs

Rick Holmes

Not much has changed since Richard Nixon declared war on drugs in 1971, including the rhetoric being used this year against Question 2, a referendum on the November ballot that would change possession of small amounts of marijuana from a criminal charge to a civil infraction and a $100 fine.

Marijuana is more addictive and more potent than ever, opponents repeat with "Reefer Madness" alarm. It's a "gateway drug," they are still saying, with the same faulty logic: Almost every heroin user started by smoking pot, therefore a single puff starts you on the road to the hard stuff. Reducing the penalty for marijuana possession would "send the wrong message" to children, as if kids pay close attention to the actions of legislators and read the fine print in the drug statutes.

For 37 years, people have been ignoring these arguments and the laws they support. One study estimates that 100 million Americans have tried marijuana at least once. A federal agency reported a few years ago that 12 percent of Boston area residents had smoked pot within the last month.

Their real-life experiences have been undercutting war-on-drugs rhetoric for generations now, as have some obvious facts: For all the billions of dollars spent and millions of arrests made, drugs today are as available, as affordable and as potent as ever. No wonder a Zogby poll released this month found that three out of four U.S. voters believe the drug war is failing.

But the war goes on, perpetuated by politicians who live in fear of being called "soft on drugs," and promoted by police and prosecutors with mixed motivations: the sincere desire to protect people from dangerous substances, as well as the ability to use a pot bust to crack a more serious crime or to bargain for a stiffer sentence.

One recent study found that in New York City, where arrests for simple possession of marijuana increased tenfold, to 353,000 over a 10-year period, officers use busts to score productivity points in community policing stats, and score overtime pay for court appearances.

Not in Massachusetts, say the district attorneys leading the opposition to Question 2. Nobody goes to jail for simple marijuana possession alone, and their records are sealed if they stay out of trouble for six months.

Proponents argue that they are punished nonetheless. A marijuana arrest can get you kicked out of public housing and can keep you from receiving federal college grants and loans for a lifetime. Even the details of a sealed criminal record is visible on a CORI check, and provide reason enough for an employer to toss your application. Then there's the legal expense, the embarrassment and anxiety an arrest can bring, whether you actually serve time or not.

Some police and prosecutors have vowed to be drug warriors no more. Norm Stamper spent decades fighting crime in San Diego and retired as Seattle police chief in 2000. Now he works with Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, making the case that drug laws help no one but organized crime.

The people are way ahead of the politicians when it comes to drug policy, Stamper says, even in the most conservative parts of the country. After he retired as chief, voters in Seattle took a dramatic step in approving Initiative 75, which instructed city police to make enforcement of laws prohibiting possession of marijuana by adults the "lowest law enforcement priority."

"That means lower than jaywalking," he told me.

Initiative 75 created an 11-member panel to study the new policy's effects over three years. That group disbanded early this year after its final report indicated I-75 had performed exactly as intended: Arrests for pot possession were dramatically reduced, keeping adults out of the criminal justice system, but there was no evidence of increased marijuana use among youth, no increase in crime, and no adverse impact on public health.

The people behind Question 2 expect similar results in Massachusetts. Laws covering drug trafficking and driving under the influence wouldn't be changed, and offenders under 18 would face fines, community service and mandatory drug awareness classes.

They have good reason to believe decriminalization wouldn't result in increased drug use: 11 other states already have similar laws, and their rates of drug use are no different.

Question 2 wouldn't legalize drugs, and it wouldn't force a truce in the war on drugs. It might reduce the casualties and restore some sanity in a small corner of that insane battlefield, which is reason enough to vote yes.

Rick Holmes, opinion editor of the MetroWest Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co. ( He can be reached at