Small amounts of Marijuana Soon To Become a Civil Offense In Massachusetts. Main Question for Police: How To Enforce? – Part One

Now that voters in Massachusetts have overwhelmingly approved (by a 65% to 35% margin) last week’s November 4, 2008 statewide ballot initiative, it falls to the state’s chief prosecutorial and law enforcement officials to “iron out” the new procedures and legal protocols necessary to shift away from the decades-old criminal law enforcement scheme for marijuana possession. Presently, that criminal statute provides for maximum penalties for up to six months in jail and a $500.00 fine, for possession of any amount of marijuana. The new law will decriminalize possession of one ounce or less of pot, and instead provide for a civil fine of $100.00 in its place. The law presumes that a person found in possession of one ounce or less of marijuana has no intent to distribute (i.e., is not a dealer) and intends the substance for personal use only.

On the issue of decriminalizing possession of small amounts (one ounce or less) of marijuana, it seems that the public appears to have been ahead of the politicians here: All 11 of the state’s District Attorneys, the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, Attorney General Martha Coakley, Governor Deval Patrick, a wide range of state legislators, and an equal complement of leading religious leaders, all spoke out actively in opposition to making possession of less than one ounce of pot a civil offense. (Notably, so too, editorially, did the Boston Globe.) Despite this, voters approved this measure by an almost 2-to-1 margin. Whether in agreement or disagreement with this ballot result, few responsible people can argue that the result isn’t a voter mandate. The approved ballot measure will become law 30 days after being presented to the Governor’s Council, which usually meets in late November or December. That means the new law will take effect probably in early January 2009. Until the date the new law takes effect, the present law governing possession of any amount of marijuana remains in effect.

People should understand several important points: First, the new law only partially decriminalizes possession of marijuana (one ounce or less,) and the new law isn’t quite as lenient as it seems: Anyone caught with an ounce or less of pot will be forced to forfeit the marijuana, as well as being assessed the civil fine of $100.00. (Exactly where this confiscate pot will end up, is anyone’s guess, notwithstanding regulations that I am sure will soon be developed.) In addition, anyone under the age of 18 caught with an ounce or less will not only have to forfeit the pot, but if they don’t complete a mandatory drug awareness program, the fine they face will be ten times the normal fine: $1,000.00.

I’ll have more on this new law in my next post on November 13 2008.