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OPINION: Decriminalizing marijuana was smart. Now, let’s be smarter

By Matt McQuaid boston.com

Your day begins when you’re rudely awakened by the music of Phish blaring from a loudspeaker right outside your window — a ritual that now happens like clockwork. On your way to work, the bus crashes because the driver got distracted while trying to relight his roach. When you finally get to the office, you’re dismayed to find that the vending machine has been completely cleared out. Your boss reneges on his promise to help you complete a project on deadline because “Aqua Teen Hunger Force just doesn’t watch itself, you know.”

It’s been nearly four years since Massachusetts passed its landmark marijuana law in November 2008, thereby decriminalizing possession of the drug in amounts under one ounce, and — much to everyone’s shock and awe — the above scenarios aren’t commonplace within the commonwealth (except, maybe, the Phish thing, and that’s only if you live in Allston).

When originally introduced, the idea of decriminalization was met with both praise and derision: Critics asserted that passing the bill could lead to increased use of a potentially dangerous drug, while supporters contended that passage would result in a more sensible drug policy and tax savings for municipalities. That fight rages on, but the detrimental social ills that the opponents of marijuana decriminalization put forth have yet to rear their ugly heads.

Drug reform dissenters have been known to frantically wave their hands in the air and decry the inevitable social decline brought on by legalization, stating that decriminalization will lead to increased use. The evidence, however, seems to point to the contrary. A 2011 study found that since the decriminalization law went into effect, neither the use of marijuana nor experimentation with harder drugs has increased among Massachusetts residents. Furthermore, numerous past studies of similar cases have shown no correlation between increased use and decriminalization.

Marijuana decriminalization has also been projected to save millions in tax revenue. In the neighboring state of Connecticut, a non-partisan study estimated that decriminalizing simple possession could save the state $31.9 million per year, according to Karen O’Keefe, the Marijuana Policy Project’s director of state policies. Jeffrey Miron, a Harvard economist, estimated that the decriminalization initiative would save Massachusetts $29.5 million in law enforcement resources, O’Keefe said.

“The law is doing what was intended — saving people who are found in possession of a small amount of marijuana jail time and a criminal record,” O’Keefe said in an email. “Convictions can prevent a person from getting housing, employment, or furthering their education.”

From 2008 to 2009, the number of arrests in Massachusetts dropped by over 7,000, O’Keefe said, leading to a substantial decrease in judicial costs. “At the same time, [the decriminalization of marijuana] is allowing law enforcement to redirect their limited time and resources to more serious crimes,” she said.

Reforming the state’s marijuana laws isn’t just good sense; the idea is also gaining traction within the state’s electorate. Polls show that a majority of Massachusetts voters support a new ballot initiative (which will be put to an official vote this November) aimed at legalizing medicinal marijuana, and the 2008 state ballot initiative passed with a strong majority. Some polls have even shown that a majority of Massachusetts residents support legalization.

Massachusetts has undoubtedly made great strides in regards to reforming archaic and ineffective marijuana laws, but these accomplishments need to carry over to the rest of the country. Marijuana laws on both the state and federal levels have failed to stop abuse in a meaningful way and are costing taxpayers billions of dollars every year. Furthermore, if the Mexican cartel wars have shown us anything, it’s that criminalization creates profit incentives for drug traffickers.

America has been fighting a war on drugs for decades. It’s time we raised the white flag.

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