Police Balk at Ticketing Marijuana Offenders

Police Balk at Ticketing Marijuana Offenders
Posted by CN Staff on January 06, 2009 at 06:19:45 PT
By Michael Levenson, Globe Staff
Source: Boston Globe 
MA -- Massachusetts officially decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana yesterday, but many police departments across the state were essentially ignoring the voter-passed law, saying they would not even bother to ticket people they see smoking marijuana."We're just basically not enforcing it right now," said Mark R. Laverdure, chief of police in Clinton, a Central Massachusetts town of about 8,000 residents, who said the law was so poorly written that it cannot be enforced. "You'll probably have a lot of officers that, unless there's a caller complaining about it, won't even bother with it. They probably handled a lot of it informally before and probably more so now."
Andrew J. Sluckis Jr., chief of police in Auburn, said his 39 officers would not be issuing $100 citations for possession of an ounce or less of marijuana, as required under the ballot initiative known as Question 2."If the Legislature enacts some changes, we'll be happy to do it in the future, but as it stands now we're not going to be issuing civil citations," he said. If an officer spots someone smoking marijuana, he said, "We will confiscate it and the person will be sent on their way.""It is frustrating," he added, "because we have to deal with a law that is almost non-enforceable at best."John M. Collins, general counsel for the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, said he had been fielding calls from dozens of members across the state who believe the law is so flawed that it is "going to become a joke."The ballot question passed in November with 65 percent of the vote. Backers said they were frustrated that possession of small amounts of marijuana in Massachusetts was a criminal offense, punishable by up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $500. Those convicted of possession could also receive a criminal record that could taint their job prospects for years, the backers said. Under the ballot measure that took effect yesterday, possession of an ounce or less is a civil violation, punishable by a $100 fine, with no risk of a criminal record.Police say they have two main problems with the law.Many complain that their current citation books lack a check-off box for marijuana possession and they have yet to receive updated ticket books, although temporary forms are available through a state website.More fundamentally, they complain that officers have no way of determining the identity of people they stop on the street for smoking marijuana. Before the law was changed, officers could arrest them, or threaten them with arrest to force them to show identification. Now, they say they cannot force users to show IDs, and cannot arrest them if they refuse to identify themselves. And they say there is no penalty if a marijuana user gives a false name to a police officer."Many of them are saying that until the law gets straightened out, we're not going to let our people waste their time chasing their tails on this," Collins said.But some police departments have resolved to enforce the law, despite their reservations. Boston and Worcester, for example, sent out training memos detailing the ins and outs of the law."We think we'll be able to adapt to it and proceed accordingly," said Elaine Driscoll, a spokeswoman for the Boston Police Department. "We don't anticipate issues."Boston's training memo, however, calls the law "deficient," because of problems officers could face in trying to identify people they spot with marijuana. Officers have no authority to search for identification, but they do have a "reasonable amount" of time under the law to try to determine names through other means, for example, by checking the names users give in an FBI database, the memo says.The memo instructs officers to use their existing ticket books and note marijuana possession under a list of "other" violations.Some chiefs said they would use creative means to determine someone's identity. William R. Walsh, chief of police in Great Barrington, said his officers might snap a photo of the user and ask officers at the station if they recognize the face, or they might let a marijuana smoker go and try to spot the person again around town."Officers with initiative and experience can find out if somebody is lying," said Sergeant Kerry F. Hazelhurst of the Worcester Police Department, who said his officers were ready to enforce the new law.In Worcester, the officers were issued temporary tickets downloaded from the website of the state Executive Office of Public Safety and Security.Like officers in Worcester and Boston, Daniel Rosa, chief of police in Billerica, said that despite the problems, "We're training our officers on it, and we will be enforcing it."Police chiefs strongly opposed the ballot measure, which they predicted would encourage marijuana use. Judging by the chiefs' complaints now, "it seems that they never stopped campaigning against this, even though the law passed on Nov. 4th," said Dan Bernath, a spokesman for Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington, D.C. group that supported the ballot initiative."It's been surprising and disappointing to see the reaction of some folks in law enforcement since voters passed this," Bernath said. "It's a very simple and modest change and there's nothing new about having a civil violation process.""I think what's really missing," he said, "is the willingness to enforce it."Gregory I. Massing, general counsel for the Executive Office of Public Safety, said cities and towns can enact local ordinances that would criminalize marijuana smoking in public.Meanwhile, the state is keeping a close eye on the law, he said."As we start to hear what the experience in the field is like," Massing said, "we'll carefully evaluate it and take whatever steps are necessary," to make the law work.Source: Boston Globe (MA)Author: Michael Levenson, Globe StaffPublished: January 3, 2009 Copyright: 2009 Globe Newspaper CompanyContact: letter globe.comWebsite: Articles: Boston Goes To Pot Decriminalization Thrills Some, Worries Others
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