Massachusetts police may no longer be able to arrest people for having a small amount of hashish, because a new law that decriminalizes possessing up to an ounce of marijuana could apply to other drugs with the same psychoactive ingredient, according to guidelines issued today.
The guidelines, from the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, say possession of an ounce or less of THC — the primary psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, hashish or hash oil — may now be decriminalized as well.
Voters passed a referendum in November that replaces the criminal penalties for having up to an ounce of pot with the civil penalty of a $100 fine and forfeiture of the drug. The law takes effect Friday, and law enforcement agencies have been awaiting a guide to its practical enforcement.
State officials expect that the judiciary will eventually have to answer specific questions about the law’s scope.
But the guidelines make clear that existing laws prohibiting the distribution of marijuana or operating a motor vehicle under its influence remain unchanged. In addition, all law enforcement officers with civil enforcement powers — including campus officers — have the authority to issue the new $100 tickets.
The guidelines also note the law allows cities and towns to pass ordinances or bylaws banning the public use of marijuana, even if having a small amount is decriminalized. Such bylaws had been unnecessary previously because possession of any amount of marijuana was illegal.
Municipalities may want to enact the ordinances, much like public drinking ordinances, to prevent someone from smoking a joint on a public space, such as the Boston Common. Beginning Friday, that person risks nothing more than a $100 fine.
"EOPSS recommends that municipalities enact such bylaws or ordinances and provide police with the option of treating public use as a misdemeanor offense," the guidelines said.
The document includes a sample bylaw prepared by Attorney General Martha Coakley.
Separately, the state’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education said in a memo last week that he does not believe the new law affects the authority of school officials to suspend or expel students who get caught with an ounce or less of marijuana on school property or at school-sponsored events.
"We encourage school officials to use their authority under state law and school committee policy with discretion," wrote Mitchell Chester. "Preferably, disciplinary measures should be coupled with drug awareness programs, and students should be given the opportunity to continue education in alternative settings when excluded from school for disciplinary reasons."
While proponents had argued the new law would free law enforcement officers to focus on more serious crime, police chiefs and the state’s 11 district attorneys opposed the change. They said it would ease access to what they consider a gateway drug and impede their ability to arrest drug traffickers and other criminals who often first become suspects because of marijuana possession.
"Now, as long as you keep it to an ounce or less, the worse-case scenario is a $100 fine — and it doesn’t matter how many times you get caught, and there’s no record of it," Walpole Police Chief Richard Stillman said. "It’s a cost of doing business."
Stillman also said teens may gravitate toward pot because the penalty for having an ounce or less is far less than the penalty for having alcohol. Under the new pot law, anyone under 18 would face the same forfeiture and fine as an adult if they complete a drug awareness program within a year.
By Associated Press
Monday, December 29, 2008