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Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Pros and cons of decriminalizing marijuana debated at Rivier University forum

NASHUA – Kevin Murray heard something from a prosecutor arguing against decriminalizing marijuana that struck him as wrong.

At a panel discussion Monday at Rivier University, Senior Assistant Attorney General Jeff Cahill said the majority of people who drink alcohol don’t do so to enter an altered state. Conversely, trying to achieve an altered state is the only reason people smoke marijuana, Cahill said. ...

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NASHUA – Kevin Murray heard something from a prosecutor arguing against decriminalizing marijuana that struck him as wrong.

At a panel discussion Monday at Rivier University, Senior Assistant Attorney General Jeff Cahill said the majority of people who drink alcohol don’t do so to enter an altered state. Conversely, trying to achieve an altered state is the only reason people smoke marijuana, Cahill said.

Murray, a junior criminal justice student, challenged whether there was a difference between drinking booze and smoking pot.

There are other types of “altered states” than getting smashed, he said.

College students who drink do so striving for an altered state, the same as students who smoke pot, Murray suggested.

Students drink to relax, or to lose inhibitions so they become more sociable, he said.

Cahill suggested that comparing drinking alcohol to smoking marijuana was “comparing apples and oranges, when it’s apples and apples,” Murray said.

Murray was one of roughly 50 people who attended a forum titled, “Marijuana: Time to Decriminalize?” The forum was sponsored by Rivier’s Criminal Justice program. Though open to the public, almost all the attendees were students. The forum was moderated by Eric Gentes, an assistant criminal justice professor.

Several proposals in recent years would have made possessing small amounts of marijuana a violation, akin to a traffic ticket. Right now, a person arrested in New Hampshire with marijuana could be charged with a Class A misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail plus fines. However, the cases, at least first offenses, are often pleaded down to a lesser charge.

Marijuana often is portrayed as safe and harmless, but “in reality, it’s an addictive drug,” Cahill said.

Cahill’s opponent on the panel disagreed. Marijuana may be habit-forming, but it’s not physically addictive, said Claire Ebel, executive director of the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

People who smoke pot function, Ebel said.

“They do go to work; they do their jobs,” she said.

Many relax after work with a joint, Ebel said.

“Is it good for you? It is if you use medical marijuana,” she said.

Legalizing marijuana for medical use is inevitable, Ebel said.

Cahill admitted the state attorney general’s office probably wouldn’t oppose legalizing small amounts of marijuana for medical use as long as sufficient safeguards were in place to prevent abuse.

However, even if the state legalized medical marijuana, its use would still violate federal law, he said.

If marijuana were legal, more people would use it, including minors, Cahill said. Smoking pot affects motor skills, and 20 percent of drivers in fatal accidents were found to have marijuana in their system, though often along with other drugs, he said.

Ebel said if marijuana is decriminalized, it still would be illegal to drive under the influence of marijuana. Marijuana use isn’t a gateway to other drugs, but the fact that it’s illegal makes it a gateway to criminal activity, which is unfortunate, she said.

Legalizing medical marijuana wouldn’t prevent it from being abused, just as Oxycontin, which is legal with a prescription, is sold on the street, said Sally Hirsh-Dickinson, an associate professor of English. She was one of the attendees who asked questions or offered comments at the forum.

Unlike users of some other illegal drugs, marijuana users tend to be passive and nonviolent, Hirsh-Dickinson said.

When she lived in Colorado 20 years ago, some of her housemates were “stoners,” she said. When the housemates passed around a bong, they became so subdued it was like being in a nursing home, Hirsh-Dickinson said.

Making marijuana illegal does more damage than does using marijuana, Ebel said.

Patrick Meighan can be reached at 594-6518 or pmeighan@nashua
telegraph.com. Follow Meighan on Twitter @ Telegraph_PatM.