Massachusetts -- State education and public safety officials face a cloudy future for schools' marijuana rules in the month before a new law that decriminalizes possession of small amounts of the drug takes effect.
Some state education leaders are concerned the voter-approved Question 2 may have unknown consequences for school policies that punish marijuana possession.
Tom Scott, the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said the measure is silent on how it would affect existing state laws that give schools the right to suspend or expel students for marijuana possession, or whether it would undermine school policies banning the drug.
"That's a concern we have," said Scott, who noted the association asked for clarification from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, where attorneys are reviewing the matter, Scott said.
Scott said schools have the ability to do things differently than other agencies - for example, schools can conduct locker searches despite privacy rights - and it's possible the same thinking will apply to how Question 2 affects schools' marijuana rules.
"We don't know what this will mean for us," said Scott, about the law, which takes effect Jan. 2.
Question 2, which 65 percent of voters approved last month, would make possession of an ounce or less of marijuana a civil offense punishable by no more than a $100 fine for those 18 and older. Younger offenders would also undergo a drug awareness program and perform some form of community service.
Possessing an ounce or less of marijuana can't be used to block access to student financial aid, public housing or any unemployment benefits, driving a car or serving as a foster or adoptive parent under the measure.
The measure also forbids the state or any of its agencies from imposing "any form of penalty, sanction or disqualification on an offender" for possessing a small amount of the drug. But the text of Question 2 also states that nothing in the measure repeals existing laws.
Under existing state law, marijuana possession can lead to suspension or expulsion from school. No school system is required to accept a student who was expelled under those regulations.
One ounce of marijuana is worth about $600 on the street, according to Michael O'Keefe, the district attorney for the Cape and Islands.
"The (state's K-12 education department) appears to be concerned about it," said Glenn Koocher, the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees.
"I'd be very surprised if there's a school administration in the state who's not very concerned about this," he said.
J.C. Considine, a spokesman for the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said Question 2's text doesn't address schools and the agency is working with the state's attorney general, the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security and other officials to clarify the measure's impact.
"We will issue more detailed guidance on this topic as soon as possible. In the meantime, we recommend that schools maintain their usual practices and procedures in regard to disciplinary matters," Considine said in an e-mail.
Terrel Harris, spokesman for the Executive Office of Public Safety, said public safety and the state's K-12 education department are working together to resolve this issue. He noted they must have an answer for schools before the law takes effect next month.
"We are continuing to work on the problem," said Harris.
But Middlesex District Attorney Gerry Leone's office says Question 2 won't change schools' ability to control drugs among students, as the ballot measure doesn't change any existing regulations of marijuana as a controlled substance, said spokesman Corey Welford.
"The current law regarding that issue remains intact," he said.
Whitney A. Taylor, treasurer and chairwoman of the Committee for Sensible Marijuana Policy, which backed Question 2, said the measure was aimed solely at changing the penalty for possessing small amounts of marijuana from a criminal to a civil one.
"It is not meant to sit there and undermine school policy," said Taylor.
She said her organization is working with the Executive Office of Public Safety as government officials review the measure. But she said there are no problems with Question 2.
"They're creating problems where there are no problems," said Taylor, referring to those concerned that Question 2 applies to schools.
At the local level, education officials reached for comment yesterday said that it's unclear how Question 2 will influence local school policies.
"We may have to look at our handbook policies. There may be some test cases" of students bringing small amounts of marijuana to schools, said John Brucato, principal of Milford High School.
Now, a kid at Milford High School who is caught with marijuana generally faces a suspension, he said. But Brucato has asked Milford's town counsel for legal advice on how to handle such situations after Question 2 becomes law.
"We're going to have to find out," said Brucato.
Philip Dinsky, chairman of Framingham's School Committee, said his board has not discussed Question 2, as their focus has been on their budget and finding a new school superintendent. He said schools should be able to block marijuana from campuses after Question 2 becomes law.
"I'm sure we could cover it with our general policies," he said.
Marcia Reni, a co-chairwoman of the Ashland School Committee, said her board is in the midst of revising district policies such as their student discipline rules, but haven't discussed Question 2 in detail.
"I'm not sure why it would actually affect anything we're doing. My sense is that's really a police matter. Our discipline isn't really related to that anyway," said Reni.
David Fischer, Bellingham's schools superintendent, wouldn't comment on whether Question 2 could have an impact on his district, only to say it wouldn't change local policies that forbid drugs.
"We're deeply concerned about drug use in any of the schools," he said.
His staff haven't had a thorough discussion about the measure, but will probably talk about it during a regular meeting with administrators on Thursday, he said.
David Riley contributed to this report. Source: Metrowest Daily News (MA)
Author: John Hilliard, Daily News Staff
Published: December 9, 2008
Copyright: 2008 MetroWest Daily News
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