Pot Holders Rejoice

Drug decriminalization


In November, Massachusetts voters approved Question 2, a ballot initiative that eliminates criminal penalties for possessing up to an ounce of marijuana. Pot smokers carrying small amounts of marijuana will no longer be subject to arrest or the ancillary penalties associated with it, such as loss of professional licenses and impairment of educational and employment opportunities. Instead they will face no more than confiscation of the drug and a $100 civil fine.

Shortly before Question 2 passed, Mexican President Felipe Calderón proposed legislation that in some ways goes further. Under Calderón's proposal, anyone possessing up to two grams of marijuana or opium, half a gram of cocaine, 50 milligrams of heroin, or 40 milligrams of methamphetamine would face no criminal penalties as long as he agreed to enter treatment. (Otherwise, he could get up to three and a half years in prison.) The treatment requirement was enough to win the support of U.S. drug czar John Walters, who declared, "I don't think that's legalization."

Just as Massachusetts and Mexico were moving to reduce penalties for drug possession, the British government shifted in the other direction, reclassifying marijuana, a Class C "soft" drug since 2004, as a more serious Class B drug. Prime Minister Gordon Brown ignored the advice of drug policy experts in making the change, which he said was necessary to "send a message" to Britain's youth about the "lethal" hazards of increasingly potent pot.

Still, moving marijuana back to Class B may have few practical consequences. As before, people caught with small amounts of marijuana will receive warnings the first time around. A second offense can result in a citation and fine, while a third offense theoretically can lead to arrest and jail. But since there is no central record of warnings, police will not necessarily know how many slaps on the wrist a smoker has received.