Ignoring the voters' will is a bad idea

November 09, 2004

EDITORIAL, Dover-Sherborn Herald

Unless you're the governor, a member of the Democratic leadership in the House or Senate, or the chairman of an important committee, it's hard to put an issue on the Legislature's agenda. In recent elections, activists have tried another way: They put an advisory question on the ballot in the district represented by the committee chairman.
     So far, the strategy hasn't worked, and considering the lack of enthusiasm shown by some local legislators to the opinions expressed by voters last week, the activists may be disappointed again.
     Voters in 15 districts, including in Dover, approved a question calling on the Legislature to turn the task of legislative redistricting over to an independent, nonpartisan commission. While some legislators have said they like the idea, taking the power to gerrymander away from leadership will be an uphill climb.
     Voters in four MetroWest communities, including Sherborn and Natick, agreed that the state's family law should give a presumption to shared custody of children of divorced parents. It's a complicated, often emotional issue, but it's one members of the Legislature's Children's Caucus should look into.
     But two committee chairmen targeted by backers of marijuana law reform seem to be having trouble getting the message.
     About 68 percent of voters in towns represented by Sen. Richard Moore, D-Uxbridge, endorsed the idea of letting terminally ill patients possess or grow marijuana for medical use with a physician's permission. Moore was unconvinced, telling a MetroWest Daily News reporter that 'until there is some scientific evidence or the federal laws permit some kind of use of it, I don't see what we can do to implement the ballot question.'
     Moore, the Senate chairman of the joint Health Care Committee, could call a hearing at the drop of a hat and ask for the evidence. He could hear from top medical researchers and from terminally ill patients - including some, we expect, in his own district - who are now forced to break the law to get what some proponents say is the only medicine that relieves their symptoms. He could find out how things have worked in the nine states that have already approved medical marijuana bills.
     Voters in the House district represented by Jim Vallee, D-Franklin, weighed in on a proposal to make marijuana possession a civil violation, like a traffic ticket, instead of a criminal offense. Fifty-seven percent of Vallee's constituents endorsed the idea.
     'I'm certainly open-minded about it,' Vallee said, 'but from the standpoint of the legislative process, I don't think there's support among the legislators to do it.'
     Vallee is House chairman of the Criminal Justice Committee, perhaps the most powerful person in the state when it comes to setting crime policy. We don't need him to be 'open-minded' and we don't need him to wait around for the other legislators to tell him what they want. He should be a leader, and he can start by convening a hearing on the costs and benefits of the current marijuana possession law.
     The irony here is that politicians typically steer clear of marijuana laws out of fear that voters will think them soft on drugs. Moore's and Vallee's constituents have given them permission, by wide margins, to explore a touchy area of public policy, yet still they shy away.
     We do not endorse the use of marijuana as a medicine nor do we favor decriminalizing it. However, we do believe that the legislature should at least give the will of the voters some consideration. There is absolutely no harm in the legislature calling for fair hearings on these matters and allowing people on both sides to present their cases.
     State legislators aren't required to take orders from their constituents, and ballot questions carefully worded by advocacy groups for maximum effect don't necessarily translate to good laws. But the districts and the state are poorly served by lawmakers who go out of their way to ignore the clearly expressed wishes of their constituents.

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