MADELEINE BRAND, host:
OK, here's that intro. In Massachusetts, marijuana is a ballot issue. On Tuesday, voters there will be asked this question, should those who get caught with a small amount of pot still be prosecuted as a criminal, or should the law be changed so that's it's only a civil violation, something like speeding? NPR's Tovia Smith reports.
TOVIA SMITH: Supporters of the ballot question like to say this is not about pot. It's about prosecutors coming down way too hard on folks who commit a relatively petty crime.
Ms. WHITNEY TAYLOR (Executive Director, Drug Policy Forum of Massachusetts): All we're doing is wasting money and wasting lives.
SMITH: Organizer Whitney Taylor says too many people who get caught with a few joints as kids end up punished for life because their criminal records disqualify them from jobs and benefits.
Ms. TAYLOR: We are, at every corner, turning around saying, no, you can't have that job. No, you can't live in that apartment. No, you can't get that loan to school. And so, I believe that current penalties for marijuana possession are too harsh.
SMITH: If it passes, anyone caught with less than an ounce of marijuana would have to pay a $100 fine. Juveniles would also have to take drug awareness classes and do community service. Polls show most of Massachusetts voters in favor, but law enforcement and inner city activists take issue.
Reverend JEFFREY BROWN (Co-founder, Ten Point Coalition): I'm not sure what the proponents of this question were smoking when they brought this to our state, but we don't need more weed.
SMITH: At a recent press conference, Reverend Jeffrey Brown said easing up on what he called the dangerous gateway drug would send kids the wrong message. And while selling pot would still be a criminal offense, District Attorney Michael O'Keefe said dealers would have less to worry about.
Mr. MICHAEL O'KEEFE (District Attorney): It is giving a drug dealer a business plan. If you're willing to pay 100 bucks per sale of 28 joints as the cost of doing business, you can operate with impunity.
SMITH: O'Keefe calls the criminal records issue a red herring. In most cases, records for first-time offenders are sealed. If criminal records are a problem for others, prosecutors say, reform criminal records laws. Don't eliminate drug crimes. DA Daniel Connolly calls the ballot question a thinly veiled attempt to legalize drugs by a national group backed by billionaire George Soros.
Mr. DANIEL CONNOLLY (District Attorney): I believe that what they are trying to do is say, let's pick a liberal state like Massachusetts. Let's get a toe hold in Massachusetts. Then the next, we'll see another ballot initiative taking a little more. And incrementally, their ultimate goal would be the legalization of all illegal drugs.
SMITH: Backers deny any such agenda, and accuse the DAs of using scare tactics. About a dozen other states have already decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana, and as Whitney Taylor says, there's no evidence that it's increased drug use.
Ms. TAYLOR: Other states have done this. The sky has not fallen. We need to have the punishment fit the crime.
SMITH: The battle over question two has become so heated, Taylor's group actually filed a criminal complaint against opponents accusing them of lying. But so far, Massachusetts attorney general says what they did doesn't amount to a crime. Tovia Smith, NPR News.