Bill may increase penalties for dealing marijuana

Bill may increase penalties for dealing marijuana

By Marc Larocque

Life may be about to get a little harder out here for a dealer.

A bill has been proposed by State Rep. John Benienda (D-Worcester) to stiffly increase the fines and jail time for those convicted of selling marijuana. The range of fines would be increased from $500 to 1,500 to $1,000 to 10,000. Jail time would also be increased from two years to five, and the bill would lower the amount of marijuana that constitutes drug trafficking from 50 pounds to 10.

“I hope to deter the amount of marijuana available and have the punishment increased if you do possess it,” Benienda said. “They treat marijuana like it’s a six pack of beer, but it’s not. It’s illegal.”

Benienda sponsored the bill after being approached by Main South Public Safety Alliance, chaired by William Breault. Breault has observed an increased amount of marijuana directly leading to an increase in possession of hypodermic needles, supporting the oft-repeated idea that marijuana is a “gateway” to more harmful drugs.

When asked if people can live responsible lives as marijuana users without it leading to crime or harder drugs Benienda said, “It’s possible, but I don’t know because I don’t do it.”

James Ferrier, associate director of public safety at Northeastern, said there is no right answer to whether marijuana is a “gateway.”

“It’s a debate that’s been going on for 50 years,” Ferrier said. “Most people that smoke marijuana don’t become heroin addicts, but most heroin addicts started doing marijuana.”

At Northeastern, there has been a decrease in reported drug violations from 108 in 2003 to 59 in 2004, and Northeastern received a federal grant of $2.5 million in October to analyze alcohol and drug use on campus and address it, Ferrier said.

The vast majority of these violations were marijuana-related, said Ferrier, who said a relatively small amount of those cases involved distribution, but most were possession.

The bill is now in front of the state judiciary committee, chaired by Rep. Gene O’Flarrety. Then it has to be passed on to another committee.

“We’ve seen mandatory minimums enacted and increased and it’s really had little impact on drug use or sales,” said Tom Angell, campaign director for the activist group Students for Sensible Drug Policy. “The impact that it does have is it is destroying state budgets. The more money that we have dumped into prison, the less we have for higher education.”

If the bill is not passed by the judiciary committee, it will either be voted unfavorably or sent to study. If voted unfavorably, Benienda might not present the bill in the next session. If it is sent to study it usually dies, but is supposed to be reviewed and studied, said Whitney Taylor, executive director for the Drug Policy Forum, a non-profit organization that supports new approaches to drug control policy.

Taylor said she expects the bill to die, because she said the majority of Massachusetts, about 63 percent of citizens, would support decriminalization of possessing an ounce or less of marijuana.

“Through national polls, most voters and most Americans think marijuana needs to be treated differently than now,” Taylor said. “I don’t think the voters in Massachusetts are going to be supportive of increasing penalties for dealing marijuana according to the polls of public policy that we’ve done.”

Despite these public attitudes, Ferrier urged students to remember the big picture.

“Every time you buy $5 worth of pot from the kid down the hall, somebody in organized crime is getting some of that $5,” Ferrier said. “Somewhere up the line, people get hurt.”

Taylor, on the other hand, said drug abuse needs to be treated as a medical, not criminal problem.

“What we have seen is that in over 35 years of fighting drugs, they are more widely available, cheaper and purer,” Taylor said. “There are people out there that think more and more harsh penalties will solve the problem, but they won’t. Increasing penalties does not solve our problems, and it has shown.”

Ryan McCarthy, a freshman political science major, said alcohol abuse can cause more harm than marijuana.

“I think a six pack of beer is potentially more dangerous than a bag of pot,” McCarthy said. “When you get drunk, you get out of control. Alcohol severely affects your decision-making progress. I’ve never seen anyone on marijuana vandalize or get into fights, while I see more people causing confrontation and getting into fights while on alcohol.”

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