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

In my last post on this subject, I explained the legal changes soon to take place in Massachusetts (probably early January 2009) in the area of marijuana possession and use. Police officials in Massachusetts, understandably, are now publicly expressing concern that they have no idea exactly how to enforce this new law. Among the questions they have:

• How will police officers on the street accurately measure what constitutes one ounce of pot? Should each police cruiser have a measuring scale in it? If the pot is rolled into cigarettes, how many joints equal an ounce?
• If a vehicular stop occurs and pot is found, does that give officers probable cause to search the vehicle for evidence of criminal activity or contraband? Will any such searches withstand legal challenges?

These questions are legitimate, and the Attorney General, in conjunction with the Commonwealth’s 11 District Attorneys, can and should develop appropriate enforcement guidelines for the state’s 351 municipal police departments, and the state police. But let’s not hear too many cries that the sky is falling: Revised criminal laws are nothing new in this state, or anywhere. Previous criminal statutes have been revised to incorporate, or “morph” into a civil regulatory structure in the past, and worked well. I see little reason to believe that can’t be done here. Many respected authorities within this debate made the legitimate argument that tens of millions of dollars and thousands of professional hours per year from police officers and District Attorneys’ offices, were mandatorily spent on prosecuting an offense that many respected observers consider to be minor in nature.

Was this a wise and effective use of our collective tax dollars, when serious crime surrounds and infects many of our cities and towns every day? Many think not. In the past week alone, more than one District Attorney’s office in Massachusetts has announced that budget cuts are forcing them to lay off several prosecutors in their offices. Those prosecutors who are not laid off, will be forced to bear even heavier caseloads. With homicides, rapes, gang warfare, robberies and violent criminals plaguing so many prosecutors’ already-strained offices, we need prosecutors concentrating their resources on the real “bad guys” among us, not on someone carrying a few joints for his or her own private use.

In my opinion as a Massachusetts criminal defense lawyer, this is not a liberal or a conservative view, neither a lenient nor a tough one. Only one of common sense.