New bill targets underage pot smokers

By Gina Curreri, State House correspondent, Cape Cod Times


BOSTON – Anyone under 21 caught with an ounce or less of marijuana would face immediate arrest, 90-day driver’s license suspension, drug rehabilitation and probation under a proposed change in state law.

On Tuesday, sponsors of bill S923 before the Legislature told the Joint Committee on Mental Health and Substance Abuse at the Statehouse that for those under 21, smoking pot should be considered as serious as drinking alcohol.

“What we’re trying to do is create a parallel system for marijuana,” said Sen. Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, one of the bill’s sponsors. “We are perilously close to a situation where young folks don’t understand the adverse consequences of use of this substance.”

Rep. Randy Hunt, R-Sandwich, serves on the committee but had no questions or input at the hearing. He could not be reached by phone for comment Tuesday afternoon.

A 2008 state referendum decriminalized possession of an ounce or less of marijuana making it a civil crime with a fine of $100.

Anyone under 18 caught with a small amount of marijuana is supposed to enter a drug awareness program and do community service, but that doesn’t always happen, Walpole Deputy Police Chief John Carmichael told the committee.

“No adolescents in my history have gone through that program for drug awareness,” Carmichael said. He believes teens know they don’t have to carry identification and can lie to police about their name when receiving a citation.

Carmichael noted that a person under 21 could be arrested for possessing a single beer but would walk free with the equivalent of less than an ounce of pot in his or her pocket.

Under the proposed bill, minors would be offered pretrial diversion to mandatory substance abuse treatment, which not all courts offer, or they would be charged with a crime that will be sealed upon successful completion of probation.

“We know that initiation to substance abuse begins typically between ages 11 to 22, and the earlier the age of onset, the more likely that individual might experience drug problems later on in life,” Carmichael said.

Mary Minott, coordinator of a substance abuse prevention program in Brookline, testified that decriminalization of pot has “really taken the teeth out of any sort of diversion program,” because kids are not penalized for avoiding treatment.

Smoking marijuana under the age of 25 is problematic because the brain develops throughout adolescence and into early adulthood, said Lon Sherritt, director of data management at the Children’s Hospital Center for Adolescent Substance Abuse Research in Boston.

Sherritt explained that tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, mimics the naturally occurring neurotransmitters in the brain that affect working memory, decision-making, judgment and brain connections.

“This bill could sincerely help Massachusetts protect our most precious resource, which is, of course, our youth,” Sherritt said.

Although nobody testified against the bill on Tuesday, some urged that treatment is the better route, rather than taking teens to court.

“We’re talking about something that’s more of a medical issue, and we’re treating it with the criminal justice system. I worry about the direction we’re going with this, not the intent,” said Rep. Paul Heroux, D-Attleboro.

Beverly resident Paul Kusiak, who put two sons through drug rehabilitation, wants parents and children to be more informed.

“A lot of parents feel that drinking alcohol, smoking pot, is not a big deal and a rite of passage,” Kusiak said. “I’m here to share that not everyone gets through it. My kids certainly didn’t.”