A 2008 ballot question’s approval by 65 percent of Massachusetts voters made possession of one ounce or less of marijuana a noncriminal offense, punishable by a $100 fine. In Fall River, the question passed with about 60 percent of the vote – 16,620 in favor to 12,077 against. A clear majority of Bay State voters said that they wanted to put an end to marijuana prosecutions involving small possession.
Some Massachusetts governmental officials – led by law enforcement – don’t agree. Even before the law passed, they were sounding alarms about a potential sharp increase in public pot smoking and the affect it might have. Now they continue making anecdotal claims to persuade local officials and the public to essentially overturn the law on a local level. Is that truly the case? While public pot smoking may still be taboo, should it be criminal? Do residents really believe it’s created a "perception of rampant lawlessness," as Fall River City Councilor Eric Poulin claimed?
Under the 2008 law, if someone is found in possession of one ounce or less of pot ( no matter where they are caught ), police issue a civil citation. The violator has 21 days to either pay the $100 civil penalty or request a court hearing. The marijuana is also confiscated. Violators younger than 18 may be subject to other penalties, such as attending a drug awareness program. With the decriminalization law, police still have the right to investigate driver impairment and criminal activity. But, apparently, that’s not enough for some law enforcement officials, who want to continue the marijuana policies of the past.
Law enforcement officials, in conjunction with city and town officials, have made the case for local ordinances and bylaws in many Massachusetts municipalities. Fall River, where Poulin asked the Law Department to draft the ordinance after police identified it as a priority issue – is the latest. Salisbury, Arlington, Wrentham, Yarmouth, Hopkinton, Lenox, Littleton, Medway, Mendon, Marlboro and Nantucket have approved similar legislation. Poulin said that Fall River prohibits public drinking of legal alcohol, so why should still-illegal ( but decriminalized ) marijuana be treated differently?
Selectmen in Middleboro this week voted to place a bylaw on the June 11 Town Meeting warrant that would set a $300 local fine for smoking marijuana in public. At a public hearing in Middleboro on Monday, no one spoke out against the increased fines. In communities where voters have a direct say at Town Meeting, at least those who voted for the ballot question have a right to decide if public pot smoking is a problem. In cities like Fall River, where the City Council makes the final determination, voters do not have that ability.
The drafted Fall River ordinance would be similar: Making public "marihuana" smoking a violation of local law, punishable by a $300 fine, in addition to the civil infraction and $100 fine under state law. It would also compel violators to provide their true name, address and date of birth ( which law enforcement claims is a loophole in the voter-approved law ). It also has the troubling caveat that it may be "enforced through any lawful means in law or in equity including, but not limited to, enforcement by criminal indictment or complaint …" The ordinance would seem to authorize police to pursue penalties up to and including arrest.
The 2008 ballot initiative decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana was a direct citizen rebuke of government marijuana prohibition policies, which had clogged the courts, consumed police resources and treated a relatively minor infraction as a serious crime. These days, public sentiment appears to be tipped more in favor of marijuana legalization.
Massachusetts does not want or need more "Reefer Madness"-era scare tactics. The voters made that clear four years ago. Law enforcement and public officials in Fall River and municipalities across the state would do well to remember that, and respect the will of the voters, not circumvent it.