Anxiety in Massachusetts over softer marijuana law
Some towns and cities seek stiffer penalties for public use, after state voters approved decriminalization.
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But for some communities, such suggestions don't go far enough.Skip to next paragraph
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"What we're attempting is to get a city ordinance ... that makes it an illegal and arrestable offense to smoke [marijuana] in public," says Capt. Randall Humphrey of the city of Lowell police department. "We're not sure if we will be able to do it, but that's our goal."
The plan has little chance of success, Captain Humphrey concedes. The Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association this month e-mailed guidelines to area police chiefs about how Attorney General Coakley is likely to rule on new town bylaws, which her office must approve. The policy update puts arrest provisions off the table.
"We don't believe a bylaw would be approved by the attorney general if it contained an arrest clause," says A. Wayne Sampson of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association.
"Without an arrest component to force identification, there's no point to a bylaw," says Police Chief Richard Stillman of Walpole, a town of about 24,000. He withdrew his plans for a town ordinance after learning of the policy update.
A divisive ordinance
Other towns and cities, though, are moving ahead with efforts to stiffen penalties. The city of Methuen last month became the first to act, raising fines in what the mayor says is an effort to address some "unintended consequences" of the referendum, which some people may interpret as encouraging marijuana use. Mayor William Manzi approves of higher fines, but he says he's been surprised by the "vehemence" of local anger at his efforts and bemoans the divisiveness the issue has stirred up.
"It's all been sort of balkanized at this point," Mr. Manzi says.
"[Some officials] fear this is the first step toward legalization," he says. "We're going to end up with 351 cities and towns doing 351 different things."
Bill Downing, president of the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition, discounts such concerns. "The public will see that the sky does not fall," he says. Continuing with efforts to tack on additional marijuana-related penalties "shows a tremendous amount of disrespect to Massachusetts voters who voted to decriminalize," he adds.
The fight is unlikely to end soon. Mr. Downing's organization is listing upcoming town meetings about new public use laws, and at least three are scheduled for next week.
Some hope the Massachusetts legislature will address some of the outstanding enforcement issues. But state Rep. William Brownsberger (D), a longtime researcher of drug issues, doesn't see that as likely.
"Everyone is being cautious politically, and people don't want to be seen as disagreeing with the will of the people," says Representative Brownsberger. While marijuana use is a sensitive issue, he urges perspective. "This is just not our biggest problem, either way."