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Needham eyes harsher penalties for public marijuana smoking amid debate over medical use

Posted by Evan Allen  October 3, 2012 03:10 PM

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As Massachusetts voters mull the possibility of legalizing medical marijuana, Needham officials have drafted a proposal for a bylaw that would increase fines for consuming marijuana in public.

The proposed bylaw, say proponents, would send a message to the town’s teenagers that marijuana is still illegal.

“We’re not trying to design this to weaken medical marijuana, we were trying to design this to make sure there’s clear guidelines on what’s permissible in public spaces,” said Jane Fogg, a doctor and Needham Board of Health member who has worked on the proposal. “We have no desire to comment on what people do in the privacy of their home.”

The proposed bylaw has been in the works for about two years and is not a direct response to November’s ballot question on whether to legalize medical marijuana, but the question gave the effort new urgency.

The bylaw, a which was included in a Board of Selectmen agenda last month, is being proposed by the Board of Health, the Police Department, the Public Health Department and the Needham Coalition for Youth Substance Abuse Prevention.

Proponents say they hope to get the bylaw onto the Town Meeting warrant next year. The Board of Selectmen have not yet taken a position on it, according to chairman Jerry Wasserman.

If the bylaw passes, a person caught consuming marijuana in public could be hit with a criminal complaint and a fine of $300 or a citation with a fine of $200 for each offense, according to the law, in addition to penalties that already exist.

In 2008, Massachusetts voters approved a ballot initiative that decriminalized possession of small quantities of marijuana. Currently, possession of an ounce or less is punishable by a $100 fine.

If the medical marijuana question passes, qualifying patients will be allowed to posses a 60-day supply of marijuana for personal medical use. In 2013, there could be no more than 35 nonprofit treatment centers, with at least one but no more than five in each county. Patients unable to make it to the centers would, under certain circumstances, be allowed to cultivate their own marijuana.

Supporters of the ballot question say that medical marijuana has the potential to help thousands of people battling cancer, AIDS, Crohn’s disease and other painful illnesses.

The question stipulates fines or jail time for people caught abusing the law, and it does not allow users to consumer marijuana in public.

Still, officials in Needham worry that the combination of easier access to the drug and the perception that, as a medicine, it is not dangerous, will lead to blasé attitudes among the town’s teenagers. Marijuana use appears to be rising in Needham’s public schools, according to a report accompanying the bylaw in town materials, which cites school incident reports and student feedback.

According to Needham Police Lieutenant Chris Baker, since marijuana was decriminalized, police have seen an uptick in marijuana possession. Since decriminalization took effect in 2009, he said in an email, the Needham Police have cited 162 people for possession of less than one ounce of marijuana, as of August of this year. In the four years before decriminalization, he said, police arrested or summonsed 46 people for possession of marijuana.

He declined to speculate on what police expect if medical marijuana is legalized.

“Marijuana needs to be respected for both its dangers and its benefits,” said Fogg. “It’s not a highly dangerous drug, but addiction occurs, secondhand smoke and carcinogen exposure are real dangers, and can’t be taken lightly.”

As November draws closer, towns across the MetroWest area have reacted differently to the possibility of legalized medical marijuana.

In some towns, officials haven’t even discussed it.

“It hasn’t even been on the radar,” said Belmont Board of Health Chair David Alper. They’re waiting to see if the law passes, he said, though it will be a topic of discussion at the next Board of Health meeting. “We don’t want to come out and take a firm position plus or minus if it’s a nonissue.”

Town governments in Brookline and Wellesley too, have been quiet.

“We have lots of things to work on, and frankly the issue has not even come up,” said Wellesley Executive Director Hans Larsen.

But in other towns, youth organizations, especially, are concerned about how the passage of the question would affect teenagers.

Natick Together for Youth, a drug-free community coalition affiliated with Natick Public Schools, is remaining neutral on whether the question should pass, but Project Director Erica Dinerman said coalition members are worried about what message the passage would send to youth.

“I guess I would echo the concerns of Needham, just based on how the law is written, and what the regulations are around how it’s gonna be monitored, and how that will affect youth access,” said Dinerman. “Since marijuana was decriminalized, youth in particular are confused about what that means, and confused about legality… kids will say that marijuana is legal.”

The coalition is not taking a position on the question, she said, and is instead trying to educate the public about what its passage would mean, letting people make their own decisions.

Since marijuana was decriminalized in 2008, according to Needham officials, more than 80 towns and cities have increased the fine for public consumption.

“It doesn’t make it criminal, it just bumps up the fine,” said Fogg. “One hundred dollars did not feel like it was dissuading people.”

Officials are not trying to squash medical marijuana, she said. Rather, they are trying to ensure that public spaces stay marijuana-free.

“We expect [that if medical marijuana is legalized] there will be more availability of marijuana for both legitimate medical users, patients, as well as people who are not legitimate,” she said. “If somebody has a card for medical marijuana and is smoking on their property, that is perfectly fine. If they went to the middle of town in the Fourth of July parade, and they were smoking in public, that is an intoxicant, and not appropriate.”

Evan Allen can be reached at evan.allen@globe.com

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