Drug Vote in Amherst Lifts Students 

Drug Vote in Amherst Lifts Students 
Posted by FoM on April 03, 2000 at 06:58:05 PT
By David Abel, Globe Correspondent
Source: Boston Globe
With a wreath of plastic cannabis plants in her hair, an attention-getting red strobe light, and a broomstick to point at passersby, University of Massachusetts freshman Erin Pfeiffer last week prodded her fellow students to overcome their historical apathy and do what few have done before: vote in the town's election.
The 18-year-old psychology major's interest in local politics wasn't motivated by a passion for fighting suburban sprawl or beefing up the town's recycling program. Her aim was more personal: to make Amherst a beacon of hope for marijuana smokers around the country.And because of the hard work of Pfeiffer and her fellow members of the Cannabis Reform Coalition, it has become just that. With record numbers of students casting ballots, Amherst residents last Tuesday voted overwhelmingly to repeal laws that make it a crime to possess marijuana and to urge local police to look the other way rather than arrest cannabis carriers.Though the referendum has no effect on state or federal laws - and local police promise no change in their enforcement policies - Pfeiffer and scores of fellow hemp supporters believe their victory is the start of a nationwide campaign that echoes the end of Prohibition.''People are going to smoke either way,'' said Pfeiffer, who says she began smoking marijuana when she was 10 years old. ''But do they have to be treated like criminals? You don't see that happening for alcohol or tobacco.''Inside the campaign's nerve center - a cramped room at UMass's student union festooned with photos of Bob Marley and letters from politicians in favor of legalizing drugs, - about a dozen members of the Cannabis Reform Coalition savor their victory and plot how to spread their crusade.''You see, it's not that we're promoting smoking,'' said Vern Coffey, a 19-year-old sophomore and president of the pro-marijuana coalition. ''It's just there are other ways to deal with this, without making criminals out of people who otherwise obey the law.'' Despite a wave of other referenda, which include the legalization of marijuana for medicinal purposes in six states from Maine to Oregon and a similar vote scheduled for this year to decriminalize marijuana in Mendocino, Calif., the UMass students know they face an uphill battle to change the nation's marijuana laws.For a reality check, they only need to look at what local officials have said since the referendum, where residents voted 1,659 to 981 in favor of repealing the laws. The town's police chief and university administrators have made it clear: Until the Legislature or Congress changes the law, marijuana possession will be treated as a prosecutable offense. The last thing they want, they say, is for anyone to get the impression it's OK to light up.''There is a growing movement on campus in support of marijuana,'' said Jo-Anne Vanin, dean of students at UMass. ''And I can't say the level of marijuana use here doesn't concern me. But that doesn't change our policy.''And even many of those who voted against repealing the marijuana laws here, a traditionally liberal city, say they understand the students' point of view. ''Sure, I don't think young people should be stigmatized,'' said Hill Boss, who last week lost his seat on the town's board to a pro-marijuana reform candidate. ''But as an elected official, I can't tell a police officer to look the other way or what laws to enforce.''Amherst resident Brian McNamara, a 55-year-old father of a 14-year-old, also voted against repealing the marijuana laws, but not without some doubts.''I had very mixed feelings,'' he said while strolling downtown last week. ''It's a shame we have kids get criminal records for this. But, for me, it comes down to not wanting to give my son the wrong message.''Even Mark Boniface, a self-described conservative Republican senator in UMass's student government, doesn't believe marijuana is a scourge on society. The 21-year-old senior majoring in political science just sees it as a basic law-and-order issue. ''Asking the police to turn a blind eye to the law is just wrong,'' he said.What does frighten those who lost the referendum is the reformers' improving organization. Last year, Amherst's Citizens For a Sensible Marijuana Policy, an umbrella group comprising local residents and students from UMass as well as Hampshire College and Amherst College, also tried to bring the issue before voters. But they failed by 99 votes to get the measure on the ballot.In their no-holds-barred effort this year, using bullhorns, phone banks, fliers, and going door-to-door passing out pamphlets, the group got more than 3,000 signatures, far more than the required 1,800. More than 500 UMass students alone voted last week, according to town estimates. In last year's board election, for example, of 2,079 voters, only 26 were students.''Maybe it's a new consciousness for a new century,'' said Terry Franklin, a 46-year-old local activist and spokesman for the pro-marijuana umbrella group. ''Things like this start in college towns. And we hope others are inspired by our efforts.''For many students, it's not just an issue of being able to smoke marijuana if they feel like it. They're concerned about the fast-rising rate of marijuana-related arrests. Since 1991, according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports, the number of such arrests has jumped by more than 400,000 to about 700,000 per year.Moreover, students are worried by a provision of the 1998 Higher Education Act, in which Congress required financial aid be taken away from any student convicted of a drug offense. According to the Department of Education, many student applications for federal loans so far this year have left one question blank - the one asking if they had been convicted of a drug offense.For UMass students intent on measuring the meaning of the referendum, the ninth annual ''Extravaganja'' on April 29 will be a proving ground. Typically, when students and residents gather in the center of town and protest marijuana laws by lighting up, several are arrested.This year, students in the Cannabis Reform Coalition say they hope the police won't take action.''You could call it a showdown,'' said Coffey, the coalition's president. ''But we don't want it to come down to that. We want to work with the police and have the police respect us. We'll see how it goes.''This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 4/3/2000.  Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company. Related Articles & Web Site:Cannabis Reform Coalition Vote on Marijuana Approved Referendum May Draw Students To Polls 
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