Some Massachusetts Municipalities Seek End-Run Around Pot Decriminalization

When will this end?

Recently, a handful of cities and towns in Massachusetts have begun efforts to develop municipal ordinances and bylaws that would punish public possession of an ounce or less of marijuana, above and beyond the state civil fines that were approved in the November 2008 ballot measure that decriminalized possession of an ounce or less of pot. That measure (Question 2 on the November 2008 ballot) was overwhelmingly approved by state voters, by a 2 to 1 margin. That measure made 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. It also requires forfeiture of the pot found on the person. Yet some opponents, including law enforcement officials, claim the law is “poorly written” and unenforceable. I find this claim to be specious at best, and far more likely generated by the law enforcement community’s resentment that the public took away some of the powers that they had before pot was decriminalized through this ballot initiative. But the result has been that some cities and towns, with the encouragement of Police Departments, have begun to craft their own bylaws and ordinances to add their own, local, fines for public possession of an ounce or less of pot. Defenders of the new state law fear these efforts might presage a wider effort toward recriminalization. I don’t blame them.

As a Massachusetts drug offenses defense attorney, it was in my economic and professional interest to oppose the ballot initiative decriminalizing pot. But as a lawyer, a former Special Assistant District Attorney and taxpayer, I can’t support arguments to keep this a criminal offense. Tens of millions of dollars were wasted each year in this state, in the arrest and prosecution of a victimless “crime” that many respected authorities consider to be of an extremely minor nature. The new law retains all the punishments for driving while under the influence of pot, as it did before, and as now justifiably apply to driving under the influence of alcohol or any other drug. The new law retains all the previous penalties and punishments for trafficking and distributing large amounts of the drug as it did before. The new law requires minors to attend a drug awareness program and requires anyone fined, to forfeit the pot they might have on their person. A national organization of present and former law enforcement professionals, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), publicly supports decriminalization of an ounce or less of pot, publicly testifying that hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars are wasted each year, on an offense that is extremely minor.

Why can’t these opponents of reasonable, measured reform, who are now spending so much time, effort and money to find an “end-run” around the new state law, put away their “chicken little” scripts, and devote their attention to obviously far more serious public safety problems in our midst? Problems like violent crimes, victims of abuse, and homelessness? Why can’t they open their eyes and see that Massachusetts is not the first state to decriminalize marijuana possession – 12 others have done so – all without experiencing any of the dramatic “sky is falling” consequences promised by opponents?

Memo to police departments and the Chicken Little crowd: The sky is not falling, and it isn’t going to. We have bigger and far more serious crime and punishment problems to tackle. So let’s do it.