Anxiety in Massachusetts over softer marijuana law
Some towns and cities seek stiffer penalties for public use, after state voters approved decriminalization.
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
The large margin of victory for the ballot initiative – 65 percent of voters approved the law – is already inspiring similar legislative efforts in other New England states, prompting close attention nationwide to the effects of a less stringent marijuana law.
Massachusetts is not the first state to decriminalize marijuana possession – 12 others have done so. But it is the first since the 1970s to eliminate criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of the drug, even for repeat offenders.
"There were changes in this direction between 1973 and 1978, but then that movement just stopped, and stopped dead," says Peter Reuter, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland and the former director of the Drug Policy Research Center at the RAND Corp. "It revitalizes a reform movement that had put laws like this on the back burner."
The law makes possession of an ounce or less of pot a civil offense punishable by a $100 fine (with minors required to attend a drug awareness program). At issue are the specifics. Some opponents, including many law enforcement officials, say the law is poorly written and nearly unenforceable. These complaints are accelerating efforts in towns and cities across the state to enact ordinances governing "public consumption," which the law's defenders fear might edge toward recriminalization.
A fine for Mr. Duck
One major concern of some police officials: While marijuana remains an illegal substance, full decriminalization, as is the case in Massachusetts, removes officers' powers of arrest, which means police can't compel offenders to identify themselves.
Such complaints are overstated, say decriminalization advocates.
"People have tried to claim that [the identification issue] is a loose end, but in fact it's no different than every other civil citation in Massachusetts, like jaywalking or in some communities drinking in public," says Bruce Mirken, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project, a national marijuana decriminalization advocacy group that helped coordinate the Massachusetts referendum campaign. "Miraculously, it's a problem with marijuana."
The new Massachusetts law specifically allows communities to draft their own public consumption ordinances, and dozens are considering doing so. The state attorney general's office prepared a model bylaw that would levy an additional $300 fine, the state maximum, on people caught using pot in public.
"We're not making a recommendation one way or the other about whether communities should do this, but if they do they should use this language," says Emily LaGrassa, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Martha Coakley, who opposed the ballot initiative.