Submitted by Dorothy Africa, Bedford Lyceum moderator

Letter-to-the-EditorThe Bedford Lyceum at First Parish Church convened a pre-election panel on November 6, 2016 to consider the social impact of ballot Question Four on Bedford and Massachusetts.  The panel participants were Ms. Kathryn Rifkin, a Bedford resident and proponent of legalizing marijuana use; Thomas Larkin, a Bedford resident with a background in psychology who has worked for much of his career in programs to assist those struggling with addictions of various kinds; and Lt. Scott Jones who has served this community for many years as a member of the Bedford Police force.

Ms.Rifkin spoke about the history of legislation regarding marijuana, noting that it had a long history as a medicine and tonic prior to legislation to criminalize its use beginning in the 1920s and 30s.  She pointed out that much of the stigma attached to marijuana arose from fears and suspicions of its more prominent users: musicians, those attending jazz clubs and night spots, the economically disadvantaged, and especially people of color.  These wild fears of communists, social deviants and criminals gave rising to punitive legislation that was socially rather than scientifically based.  This bias survives today in the disproportionate incarceration rate for marijuana possession in the US that falls most heavily on the poor and communities of color.

Mr. Larkin voiced the concern that the preoccupation with criminal prosecution has misdirected public funds into building jails instead of medical treatment facilities and programs to assist those struggling with addictions.  He noted that compared to other addictive substances, alcohol, tobacco, opioids and other pain medications, marijuana has a much lower addiction rate, and also less lethal effects for long term use.  He noted the social consequences in later life caused by criminal records for marijuana possession that can make employment and advancement difficult for young persons.  It was his hope that if Question Four passes, funding would improve for addiction recovery programs in Massachusetts.

Lt. Jones addressed the problems of enforcement faced by police on active duty.  While there are tests that can be used at the time of a road-side stop to detect impairment due to alcohol, there are no similar tests that can identify the specific drug or its present level in a driver suspected of driving while drug impaired.  This can lead to very subjective assessments by police officers, many of whom have had inadequate training for dealing with such situations.  Lt. Jones commented that in the course of his career policing has changed a great deal as officers are increasingly dealing with complex social situations rather than law enforcement.  In some cases it is not at all obvious what the proper response should be, and if a situation becomes dangerous the officer has very little time in which to make a decision about the course of action to take.

The session ended with an open discussion among those in the audience and the panel members.  Topics of concern were the problems of legal marketing making marijuana more available to minors, and the absence of good scientific research on the effects of marijuana.  This is due partly to legal restrictions, but also the habits of users who commonly use marijuana along with other drugs, especially nicotine and alcohol.  A number of speakers focused on the importance of focusing legal restrictions on poor and dangerous driving and public conduct while impaired rather than on the cause of the impairment.

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