Massachusetts Law Forbidding Driving For Drug Crimes Hindering Those In Recovery

By McCarton Ackerman 09/14/15

A 1989 law forbidding drug offenders from driving has shown little meaningful impact.

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A Massachusetts law instituted in the 1980s that forbids anyone convicted of a drug offense from operating a vehicle is now hindering people who have been sober for decades from bettering their lives.

The law was instituted in 1989 and makes Massachusetts one of several states to suspend licenses for possession or distribution. Although there is little evidence that it has any sort of meaningful impact, it’s prevented tens of thousands of people in the state from holding down a job or even doing basic errands like getting to the grocery store. Many are unable to cough up the several hundred dollars to have their license reinstated once the suspension is up.

Possession brings a one-year revocation in Massachusetts, possession with intent to distribute results in a three-year suspension, and trafficking carries a five-year penalty, the maximum under the law. For an offender without a license, the suspension serves as a temporary bar from obtaining one. State data shows that 5,431 licenses were suspended last year, but only 2,441 paid to get them back.

The law has also been criticized for disproportionately hindering minorities. About 44% of those convicted in Massachusetts of drug crimes that trigger these suspension are minorities and many live in low-income neighborhoods.

Many throughout the state are starting to fight back against it. The Massachusetts District Attorneys Association said in a statement that license suspensions and reinstatement fees “add to the difficulty people face when trying to reintegrate into society,” while Gov. Charlie Baker has indicated he is open to signing a repeal on the law if it lands on his desk.

Other states have already taken similar action in recent years. Delaware and South Carolina repealed their license suspension laws for those convicted of non-driving related drug crimes, while the Ohio Legislature took up a bill last month that would eliminate mandatory suspension and leave it up to a judges’ discretion.

Republican Ohio state Senator Bill Bietz, who introduced the legislation, said that “it never made any sense to me why we should be suspending people’s driving privileges for things that have precious little to do with their driving habits.”

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.