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Mass. group raises $219,000 for pot decriminalization

Ray Henry

A man charged with drug offenses nearly a decade ago after a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) student fatally overdosed on laughing gas contributed $25,000 to supporters of a ballot question to decriminalize minor marijuana possession because he believes changing the law could help avert future tragedies.

Rene Ruiz, 31, of Boston, made one of the largest donations to the Committee for Sensible Marijuana Policy this year, according to campaign finance reports filed last Friday. The group raised more than $219,000 from January to August.

He and a friend were charged with drug offenses in 1999 when police found drugs and paraphernalia in the friend’s dorm apartment, where 22-year-old MIT student Richard Guy overdosed on laughing gas. Ruiz and his friend were out of the state at the time and authorities did not directly connect them to Guy’s death.

Ruiz, who ultimately paid a fine and served probation, said last Friday he is sorry for what happened. He believes that drug use should be treated more as a public health issue and less as a matter for the criminal justice system.

“It’s not that it’s wrong to punish people for using drugs,” Ruiz said. “That’s perfectly fine. But punishment in and of itself has not solved the problem.”

Critics, including Middlesex District Attorney Gerard Leone, have argued that the marijuana sold on the streets today is more potent than before and that decriminalization sends the wrong message to youth.

The state’s 11 district attorneys have each kicked in more than $2,000 to fight the ballot question, donating to the newly formed Coalition to Save our Streets. The group raised $27,670.

If the measure is approved in November, Massachusetts would become the 13th state to lift or ease criminal penalties on marijuana possession. The proposal would make having an ounce or less of the drug a civil offense punishable by a $100 fine. It would also require parental notification and the completion of a drug awareness program for anyone under 18 caught with an ounce or less of the drug.

Meanwhile, the Coalition for Our Communities, which opposes a ballot question repealing the state income tax, raised just over $1.5 million between January and August, mostly from labor unions. The National Education Association donated $750,000.

“This reckless proposal is binding,” coalition spokesman Stephen Crawford said, “and would have a devastating effect on important services every person in the state depends upon: safe roads and bridges, ambulance service that arrives in time and classroom sizes that allow our kids to learn and become active members of our community.”

Cutting the income tax would reduce by nearly 40 percent the amount of money that Massachusetts takes in each year. Municipal leaders have said the proposal would cripple government, while supporters argue that taxpayers would save thousands of dollars per year.

Mayors have urged Gov. Deval Patrick to campaign against the proposed income tax repeal.

“People hate paying taxes … I understand that,” Patrick said last week. “But I also think that we’re going to have to start leveling with each other, that the services people say they want cost something.”

Associated Press reporter Steve LeBlanc contributed to this story.

(Associated Press)