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Mass. Towns Seek Controls Over Public Marijuana Use

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Towns and cities in Massachusetts have had to accept a state law that decriminalizes possession of small amounts of marijuana, but many local communities are seeking legislation to prevent users from smoking pot in public, the Christian Science Monitor reported Feb. 20.

Massachusetts residents voted in November to decriminalize marijuana, with a maximum fine of $100 for users. Police complain that the demotion of marijuana use from a misdemeanor to an infraction means they cannot request identification from those ticketed for using the drug.

Drug-reform advocates said that marijuana use is now like any other civil infraction in Massachusetts, such as jaywalking or public drinking.

The law does not prohibit public use of marijuana, but allows local communities to draft their own public-consumption laws. The Massachusetts Attorney General has issued guidance stating that an additional $300 fine for public use of marijuana would be appropriate.

“We're not making a recommendation one way or the other about whether communities should do this, but if they do they should use this language,” said Emily LaGrassa, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Martha Coakley.

“What we're attempting is to get a city ordinance … that makes it an illegal and arrestable offense to smoke [marijuana] in public,” said Capt. Randall Humphrey of the Lowell, Mass., police department. “We're not sure if we will be able to do it, but that's our goal.”

However, Coakley's advice specifically excluded arrest statutes, based on the ballot language. “We don't believe a bylaw would be approved by the attorney general if it contained an arrest clause,” said A. Wayne Sampson of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association.

The city of Methuen has passed an ordinance calling for fines for public marijuana use, although not without strong protests from decriminalization advocates. Protesters also came out when Quincy officials discussed adopting stronger penalties.

Observers said it is unlikely that state lawmakers will assist local communities by passing broader prohibitions on public use of marijuana. “Everyone is being cautious politically, and people don't want to be seen as disagreeing with the will of the people,” said state Rep. Will Brownsberger. “This is just not our biggest problem, either way.”

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