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Feature: After Decriminalization Victory, Massachusetts Activists Fight Rear-Guard Action Against Recriminalizers

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #569)
Consequences of Prohibition
Drug War Issues

Massachusetts voters supported marijuana decriminalization by a margin of nearly two-to-one in November, despite the horrified protestations of the Bay State's law enforcement community. Now, thanks to the inclusion of a sentence in the ballot initiative and guidance from state Attorney General Martha Coakley, decriminalization foes see an opening to keep fighting their lost battle by seeking to pass municipal ordinances that would fine, or in some cases, subject to criminal penalties, people who consume marijuana in public.

''Gutterheads'' and ''Girls 4 Ganja'' pre-lobbying party, week of Quincy hearing
Under the initiative passed in November and in effect since early this month, the maximum penalty for marijuana possession (up to one ounce) is a $100 fine. But as the state Executive Office of Public Safety and Security noted in law enforcement guidelines issued earlier this month: "Question 2 permits the cities and towns to pass ordinances or by-laws prohibiting public use of marijuana or THC and to provide for additional penalties for public use. EOPSS recommends that municipalities enact such by-laws or ordinances and provide police with the option of treating public use as a misdemeanor offense. "

Attorney General Coakley was happy to help out. Her office drafted and distributed a model ordinance for banning the public use of marijuana, which could include either criminal or civil sanctions, or both. A number of Massachusetts towns and cities have expressed interest in passing such ordinances, which does not sit well with decriminalization advocates, and now battles over the ordinances are breaking out all across the state.

It hasn't gone as well for the recriminalizers as they might have expected. The first municipality to vote on an ordinance, Worchester, voted it down last week. West Newbury Police Chief Lisa Holmes asked for a public pot smoking ordinance, but the council there unanimously said no. In Methuen and Quincy, Bay State activists have managed to put local elected officials on alert that they can expect trouble if they pass such ordinances.

But those battles aren't over yet, and there are many more to be fought. In Framingham, the town board of health passed a measure amending the smoking ban to include marijuana, but state law already prohibits the lighting of tobacco or other combustible products in public buildings. In Braintree, an ordinance proposing a $500 fine for public consumption will be discussed in coming weeks. In Auburn, where the police chief said the decriminalization law was unenforceable, he is expected to draft an ordinance fining public smokers. Ordinance fights will also take place in Danvers, Everett, Haverhill, Melrose, Milford, Newburyport, North Andover, Plymouth, Revere, Wakefield, and Watertown, according to Massachusetts activists. And there are probably more to come -- or perhaps not, if a string of defeats occurs.

And if activists can mobilize in those towns like they did Tuesday night in Quincy, they might just have the recriminalizers on the run. In Quincy, more than 60 people showed up outside city hall with signs and banners to express opposition to any ordinance. Mobilized by cell phone, Facebook, MySpace, and the web site, about two-thirds of the ralliers were young people, said's Scott Gacek.

"Many of our people had just voted for the first time, for Obama and for decriminalization, and now they feel like their votes are being ignored," said Gacek in explaining the youth turn-out. Although the ordinance was on the agenda, the city council dithered for hours over a zoning issue, but the crowd lingered into the night, sending the council a strong message of opposition.

"The council introduced the measure and, with no discussion whatsoever, voted to send it to the public safety and ordinance committees, but it doesn't exactly look like it's on a fast track," said Gacek.

Citizen action is a good thing, affirmed Bill Downing, president of the MassCann, the Bay State NORML affiliate. "If people want to participate in these protests in places like Quincy, that's a significant thing. If people are reading this in Maine or New Hampshire or Rhode Island, they can get on our e-mail list as well as read the news on the MassCann web site and join in. Please."

For Downing, the ordinance moves are a last gasp of the anti-decrim dinosaurs. "I see this as sour grapes by the folks who lost the vote," he said. "Hopefully, people throughout the state who voted for this would see actions like that as an insult, as they well should. It may end up helping us progress toward better marijuana laws because these people are only vilifying themselves."

"Attorney General Coakley was hostile toward us from the beginning, and after the election she sent out a model ordinance," said John Leonard, a former MassCann chair and currently a board member with the Drug Policy Forum of Massachusetts (DPFMA). "Now, they're jumping on this all over the place. We are in the process of formulating an action plan here at DPFMA," he said. "We're fighting these things left and right, and we need some help. We're happy that the Marijuana Policy Project came here and did the initiative, but now we're left with the aftermath."

MPP largely dictated November's initiative language and funded the campaign. Local activists had issues with some of the initiative's language, but papered over them to unite behind the campaign. In the sometimes rancorous debate in the run-up to the initiative, the language about ordinances was not an issue.

Perhaps it should have been, Leonard suggested in hindsight. "It is a shame that Question 2 allowed for public consumption laws," said Leonard. "Those are traditionally used for legal substances, like alcohol and tobacco. Marijuana is already illegal in public."

Downing also blamed the wording of Question 2 for some of the current problems. "The question itself said it didn't prevent towns from passing local ordinances. If they hadn't put that in there, this whole thing could have been avoided. Don't get me wrong," Downing continued. "We're thankful for MPP for all they did, but now we have to deal with this."

DPFMA is mobilizing to fend off the ordinances, Leonard said. "We are going to buy advertising in Quincy, which is the largest city where this is an issue, and we're going to be asking all the national organizations to chip in by adopting a town and lending their support. We want to stop this now," he said.

MPP is a bit more sanguine about the ordinances than Bay State activists. "The bottom line is really whether specific proposals are an attempt to subvert the intent of Question 2 or whether it is just a reasonable public nuisance ordinance," said MPP communications director Bruce Mirken. "If they are going to use this as a pretext to give people criminal records, then that becomes a problem." But it's Massachusetts voters who can stop the ordinances, or not, Mirken said. "It is up to local folks to decide what they're willing to tolerate and how organized they're going to get to stop something they don't like."

It's not that big a problem, said another national reform leader. "We're not worried that there will be serious damage from this," said Keith Stroup of national NORML. "It sounds like most of this is just chest-beating from the losers. They didn't like the initiative, so they run out and say 'in my town we're going to be tough,' but they are going to find that not many elected officials will want to go up against the expressed will of the voters."

"We want to make sure this law works well, and if it doesn't, we are going to need to work with people to fix it," said Stroup. "But we're not going back to arresting marijuana smokers. I think the people of Massachusetts appreciate their new law and having police pay more attention to serious crimes."

The ordinance battles will continue. At best, they will result in a resounding defeat of the recriminalizers. But even if decrim foes are able to get ordinances passed in some municipalities, it may be a pyrrhic victory: In the process of trying to do so, they are waking up a whole new generation of Bay State marijuana activists. Perhaps the local ordinance clause will turn out to be a Trojan Horse for building the drug policy reform movement.

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


mlang52 (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

It is not safe to do so! The drug war would get you killed. The drug cartels are very powerful organizations who are propped up by the continuing war on drugs, resulting in many murders. That puts the people wanting to rid the country of drugs on the side of those who want to continue to make a big profit at it. Oh, I didn't mention that the cops and prison systems are making their money off of the failed drug war, as well. They are both on the same side of the never ending drug war! They are addicted to the money! Both supporting an ongoing, criminal enterprise!

All the time this goes on, drugs infiltrate the schools, where your kids go. As result, drugs are easier for kids to get than cigarettes or booze! In that case, the drug war is no deterrent at all. If we can't keep drugs out of prisons, how in the world do you think you are going to keep them out of schools. But, most kids are educated enough, nowadays, not to mess with them, by their caring parents!

But, maybe if a few prohibitionists moved to Mexico, they would see the result of their philosophy.

Fri, 01/23/2009 - 1:49pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

I'm having a hard time understanding this.I totally support complete legalization of marijuana...but why can't the people in Mass who also support it compromise and not force people who don't smoke to smell their joint in a public place or have their kids see it?
C'mon people...we've been stepping around the corner to fire up for decades...the cops want people to believe that all users are public menaces,don't enforce their assertions.
We have to show the non-using public that we are just ordinary people who will show respect and ommon courtesy.
Let's enjoy this first half-step victory and with our actions ,show the public that we can use responsibly...only that will convince them to go the rest of the way.

Fri, 01/23/2009 - 2:12pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Check out

Check out the two cities, two videos and the two stories!

A tale of two cities!

One with reasonable Mayor that allowed public discussion and even offered a compromise after a youtube video interview with a popular hometown band planning a protest of their next hearing. And the result, a compromise on both sides? This one's not over yet but Methuen, MA, they've shown they respect their citizens, free speech, democracy.

And another that went the opposite, Quincy, MA and they got nothing done but a ton of 18-30 years out in the largest numbers in decades at Quincy City council....

Fri, 01/23/2009 - 3:24pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

We are respectful in Boston.

We just don't want to hear reefer madness from politicians and talk of how there are going to be so many smoking in the schools and parks when this isn't the case.

The question is what do we do to those who get caught in public whether smoking or transporting it in their car. That was question 2. 65% voted yes, $100 fine for either offense.

That's what question 2 really was.

It's always really been 99.99% decriminalized to smoke in my house.

So some towns want to change it at the prompting of the people who lost the big campaign. The Attorney General, Marth Coakley and another public safety office, a Governor Deval Patrick proxy.

The question now that they are putting before MA residents?

Do you think we should fine people a $100 for smoking in public with a drug class for minors?

Or do we raise the fine to $700 and leave the criminal or civil up to the officer. This has been reported in several large newspapers. Over and over again. And some are now dropping the criminal it seems and just going for huge fines. But consider this, a kid caught smoking a joint, you fine him a $100, do you think there is a good chance the parents will make him work to pay that fine? To take the hit? Yes.

Now raise that to $700-1000? The parent pays and the youth never feels the economic loss. And some of these parents just might be single mothers missing rent and food money.

$700-1000? No way.

No public debate allowed? No way.

Not allowing the 65% to speak? No way.

Not allowing the 65% to have their input, a spot at the negotiating table? No way.

One city did it right and they are probably going to get another $100 tacked on for smoking in public and not have their town residents that upset at them. But even there, a poll of the room, and this was town residents and not a group that we brought. In an informal poll by a city councilor. None supported the initial $400 fine. A couple 2-3 supported the $100 fine. We are the majority. And we do care about our cities and towns.

Check the two videos on to see what is really going on then get back.

The people are standing up for themselves and some politicians are working with us, even ones that don't agree on everything at all...

And a few holdouts are fighting an organized campaign against us. Top down Democrat/District Attorney/police lobby coalition....

The people are reasonable and strong in conviction, we are going to win this.

Fri, 01/23/2009 - 3:39pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Is there really a difference between smelling someone's joint and someone's cigarette? Smelling marijuana smoke is not going to get someone high. Having their kids see someone smoking would be just like kids seeing people use other drugs like tobacco or alcohol. The only thing is that those are legal drugs that the government makes shitloads from; therefore more socially acceptable. If the government was to tax and regulate bud, it would make extra income, keep it away from more kids, and take away money from drug dealers.

Sat, 01/24/2009 - 4:00pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

I have no problem seeing public marijuana smoking,and I am a victim of the nanny laws against cigarettes.
It's your state dude...I just thought that after winning such a sweet half step you would be on your best behavior to get it the rest of the way.
I'm just seeing it from the outside and if there is no attempt to repeal the new law it just looks like selfish people crying we want more more more.
What you do in Mass won't affect me,I live in the last state that would ever consider a measure like question 2 and I think you guys are lucky.So,by all means,fire em up the park,in the church,in front of the elementary long as it's what you want it must be the right thing for the reform movement ,right?

Sat, 01/24/2009 - 8:57pm Permalink
mlang52 (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Stop using reason, you know it is an unknown commodity to all stoners!! (sarcasm).

Common sense would tell me that your approach is much more sound! The other attitude reeks of immaturity. I don't want the right to light up just anywhere. Just being able to light up at home, to help my pain, would be a good start! But, medically, I would rather see people not drinking! And, the second hand smoke junk, outside or even in bars, is baloney! Pot seems healthier, even if it is smoked!

Sun, 01/25/2009 - 12:46pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

In reply to by mlang52 (not verified)

I guess you haven't noticed how stupid the public can putting up videos on youtube showing 3 year olds smoking a you think things like this help the reform movement?

As far as immature,I would bet that I was toking on Panama Red while you were still on the bottle.I have no problem with public smoking of pot or cigarettes,I'm just calling for a little judgement.It is not the politicians you need to show that question 2 is working ,it is the non-smoking public around you.
And you Mass people shouldn't get too my maturity I have seen public opinion go south so fast it would make you dizzy.
Consider that in 1979 it was widely believed by the public that marijuana would be totally legal in a few years.The tobacco companies had bought up thousands of acres of land in anticipation.Then came Reagan...public opinion shifted a full 10 points against legalization in months...all it takes is a few stupid people flaunting their joints in the wrong place and it will be front page news for the cops.
As I's your state,do what you feel is best.

Sun, 01/25/2009 - 3:56pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

The truth is that the compromise you are talking about has already been met with the passage of decriminalization. People are not allowed to smoke pot anywhere, public or proivate, in Massachusetts. If you do, then you face confiscation of your marijuana and a $100 fine.

If legalization were passed, then there may also be a need for public consumption laws that dictate where people can not smoke marijuana; much like the laws that currently exist for tobacco and alcohol.

Passing public consumption laws now seems redundant and unnecessary, especially when you consider that it is below freezing and snowing in Boston.

Wed, 01/28/2009 - 1:04pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

"The bottom line is really whether specific proposals are an attempt to subvert the intent of Question 2 or whether it is just a reasonable public nuisance ordinance," said MPP communications director Bruce Mirken. "If they are going to use this as a pretext to give people criminal records, then that becomes a problem." But it's Massachusetts voters who can stop the ordinances, or not, Mirken said. "It is up to local folks to decide what they're willing to tolerate and how organized they're going to get to stop something they don't like."

So MPP's goal in spending $1 million on this was merely to prevent criminal records for people, they don't care if the government fines the hell out of MJ users? That's a shitty goal. Voters in Mass. have been approving local $100 decrim referendums for 8 years by 60% and up, why would you give towns the ability to raise the fine to $400 or $700 or more?

Keep in mind that the language of this initiative was written solely by MPP and a single lawyer from Mass. who had zero experience with MJ reform. MPP kept it a secret with no input from a single in-state MJ activist.

Fri, 01/23/2009 - 2:22pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Isn't Whitney Taylor from Mass? Didn't this measure have support from Dr Lester Grinspoon.Isn't Epstien the founder of MassCann?
I don't know about Mass,but I come from RI...try drinking on the beach or in a public park and see if you don't get fined heavily.
I personally don't like Mirken but he does some very good work and MPP has helped in alot of major gains for the reform movement.
I have talked personally to Whitney and she assures me they are watching for any funny business as far as trying to repeal the law.Passing an ordinace to prohibit public use is a seperate issue and public intoxication laws are far from a new thing.

Fri, 01/23/2009 - 2:45pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Public consumption laws are designed for LEGAL substances. Marijuana is still ILLEGAL. Question 2 clearly defined the penalty for smoking marijuana: $100.

So, you talked to Whitney? Where is she now? She's certainly not returning our calls or emails.

And remember: MPP never asked for input from the activists in Massachusetts who have been working hard for reform for over 20 years, and there was a lot of discussion about the wording in the law.

The bottom line is this: 65% of voters spoke, loudly, that marijuana law needs to be reformed. The politicians need to listen, and respect the majority.

Fri, 01/23/2009 - 3:49pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

I have an extreme dislike for Mirken because of a personal exchange we had but I'm big enough to admit that he does good work and I don't believe he had any bad intentions.I believe Dr Grinspoon initially opposed the measure but later signed on to will not find a more sincere reformer than Dr Grinspoon.
All I'm saying is just look at how the cops are twisting it now,it's disgusting and the Globe is playing right along.If even a few people are caught in a public park and try to use question 2 as an excuse it will be blasted all over the news and help the cops get away with their propaganda campaign.
I say let the individual communities set their own standards and give it some time. I doubt there is any user who thinks they can fire up a dube in front of the cop shop and think they are not still breaking the law.
Voters should demand an impact study be done to show the savings before the cops can fabricate something that will convince people it is costing more than the old policy.

Fri, 01/23/2009 - 4:28pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

I'm not in Mass or anywhere near it.If you are, I am interested in any attempt to dismantle the intent of this law and if you have information that shows that this is an attempt to undermine it rather than individual communities determining their own standards under the law I will definitely be in agreement with you.I do think the proposed fines are outragiously high.

Fri, 01/23/2009 - 4:38pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Here is a perfect example of what I'm talking about.
A Hingham cop saying that "people are being more brazen than ever smoking pot" and "drug dealers are selling amounts just under an ounce" and the guy he arrested "the first thing he said was it's under an ounce".
This is how they will twist my experience people rarely buy an ounce ,I think this is a total fabrication about dealers selling just under an ounce.
People being more brazen? That may be true,that's what I'm warning against.
Believe me,the cops are working as we speak to find a reason to convince the public this was a mistake and truth has nothing to do with it.
The best way to counter these new public use laws is to pass a "lowest priority order"...meaning that if there is a J-walker anywhere near,even if it is smoking in public it doesn't come first.

Fri, 01/23/2009 - 5:23pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

We need CSMP and MPP to do more. They have an email list, they should be using it to get people at the hearings. I understand some of their stance on things but getting people at the hearings is important. It sets the tone and makes sure that people get to speak out against ridiculous fines. A civil discussion in Methuen after a front page news story in their newspaper with a local band protesting the harsh fine, led the Mayor to write a much better ordinance. Limiting it to only the parks and schools that a small number of people are concerned about. Only adding an extra $100 onto the exisitng $100, instead of the proposed $300 tack on. That's because people showed up and spoke. CSMP and MPP aren't sending people out to these? It's being noticed. How could it not? No emails on it either.

I don't want to bash MPP any at all. There's been lots of that on both sides and at times I've been pissed and gone there. No more.

Just the facts.

And I think MPP is going to do the right thing and start sending emails.

We don't need ridiculous $1000 fines.

Fri, 01/23/2009 - 3:54pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

You need to go after Coakley's job! Get the Attorney General fired!

Fri, 01/23/2009 - 3:06pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

So if these local by-laws are passed the only place weed will be decriminalized is my home. Well what was the point of voting cuz nothing changed, weed hasn't been a crime in my home for a long time. If your in a public place, who really just starts slamming the bottle in front of everyone, who brings children to bars? Irresponsible people that's who, and yes there are irresponsible pot users but for the most part we keep to ourselves. We don't get loud drunk and brake shit. We sit and laugh while have stimulating converstaions or we go the opossite way and veg out and play some video games. Weed is not OC's or coke and we voted to tell Big Brother that, but it's also not alcohol. It is its own substance with its own effects and therefore needs its own penalties. We told you what that is, 100 fine. 65% said it. Just do it and see what happens, I mean with all seriousness give it a chance to fail if that's what's gonna happen. But give it a chance to work too and I think everyone will be surprise with the outcome of cooperation.

Gutter Heads

Fri, 01/23/2009 - 4:04pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

A Tale of Two Cities:
Methuen, MA hearing, Methuen does it right.
Methuen Mayor offers a compromise to rock band, Prospect Hill and local marijuana reformers.

Quincy, MA hearing, City council tables motion and shuts down public discussion.
Another win with a city not as open to hearing from their citizens.

Fri, 01/23/2009 - 4:05pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

It's great. I can bash MPP at times but I like what has happened. They can't constitutionally can't throw it out and now the war is in the streets and city council. Many cities and towns won't touch this. Not in Boston or Cambridge. Nor Worcester. It's working. There will be some more local battles.

But we will be there.

And we are civil, responsible, care about our towns, the best.

Hope MPP joins us.

Fri, 01/23/2009 - 6:15pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

These red neck idiots should be given mj enemas until they mellow out.

Mon, 01/26/2009 - 7:56pm Permalink

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