House expected to repeal “remnant” of war on drugs

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, JAN. 4, 2016…..Calling it a relic of the “ineffective” war on drugs, multiple House lawmakers said Monday they expect overwhelming support in the House on Wednesday for a repeal of automatic driver’s license suspensions for people convicted of certain drug offenses..

“What we’ve been learning, especially through the opioid crisis, is there are so many people affected by drug convictions who end up losing the ability to, essentially, recover,” Rep. Elizabeth Malia, who chairs the Joint Committee on Mental Health and Substance Abuse, said. “The fact is that very often these people are really limited in the type of work they can get. And if you can’t drive to work, you can’t get a license, you can’t afford to pay the fine imposed, it makes it a really direct obstacle for people to rebuild their lives.”

The law that would be repealed, Malia said, is “basically a remnant” of the “well-intentioned but ineffective war on drugs” that a lot of other states have moved past.

The Senate approved the bill (S 2021) by a unanimous vote in late September, and House Speaker Robert DeLeo’s office confirmed Monday that the legislation will be brought up for a vote during the first formal House session since mid-November on Wednesday, pending a report out of the House Ways and Means Committee. An electronic poll of committee members will be open until 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, a Ways and Means aide said, after which time the committee could send the bill to the full House.

The Senate bill, introduced by Sen. Harriette Chandler, takes off the books a 1989 law that automatically suspends licenses of people convicted of drug crimes unrelated to driving. The bill also removes the $500 penalty for license reinstatement for those convicted of drug crimes.

“There are many people out there whose licenses are suspended because of a conviction for possession of marijuana or other drugs and the reality is that that is counterproductive,” Rep. David Linsky said. “We need these people to be able to drive to maintain employment or to get to treatment and to support their families. So suspending their driver’s licenses actually makes it more difficult for them to be productive members of society.”

Rep. Tom Sannicandro, one of the earliest House sponsors of the bill, said the original law dated from a time when politicians were trying to show that they could be “tough on crime.”

“In 1989, we were just at the beginning of the war on drugs. We know now that the war on drugs has been an abject failure at any level,” he said. “Now we’re getting smarter about what we’re doing, particularly with the opioid crisis we’re in now. I think people are realizing that what we’re doing is not helpful and we need to be much smarter about what we’re doing.”

Sannicandro, an Ashland Democrat, said that he is “absolutely sure” the House will pass the bill Wednesday and said he doubts the vote will be a close one.

“I’m wondering whether we’ll even see any opposition from anyone. This could be a unanimous vote,” he said. “I’m not hearing any opposition from anyone, and I don’t think we’ll see a partisan divide over this either.”

DeLeo said Monday that it is “necessary” to take up and pass the bill, which would give people in recovery “some tools so that they can get back into society and live within the boundaries of society.”

“We’re talking about folks who are out of jail, folks who we’re telling on the one hand to go out and make a life for yourself, go out and get a job, go find housing,” he said. “And in this day and age, without a license, that’s a most difficult task to do.”

Gov. Charlie Baker declined to say whether he would sign the bill should it reach his desk, but said that he supports the general idea of the legislation.

“Obviously, it’s going to depend on what it says and the devil’s always in the details on this stuff,” the governor said. “Conceptually, we’ve said before that we think the Legislature is moving in the right direction on this and we certainly support the concept for all the reasons the speaker laid out.”

For Malia, whose committee has focused on the state’s opioid epidemic, eliminating the automatic license suspension would work to limit the societal effects of the scourge of opiate addiction and abuse.

“This is a necessary part of our response to the opiate crisis and the number of people, and especially young people, affected by this motor vehicle piece is just growing with time,” Malia said. “It’s time. The old ‘get tough’ policy just doesn’t seem to work. It’s time to rethink some of these outdated laws.”
Copyright 2016 State House News Service

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