Question 2 backlash heats up

Rolling the Genie Back in the Bag
By CHRIS FARAONE  |  January 28, 2009

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Since Question 2 was activated on January 2, it's been difficult to walk the streets of Massachusetts without encountering red-eyed hordes of marijuana-blazing vagrants. Hippies are puffing bowls at restaurants, hip-hop kids are clam-baking public buses, and high-school students everywhere are dropping out to sling decriminalized bags. But a series of reactionary ordinances proposed by local bureaucrats and law-enforcement officers across the Commonwealth may crush any further ensuing pothead pandemonium.

Watertown Town Council members have suggested leveling a $300 fine — on top of the $100 civil penalty that Question 2 specifies — against people caught possessing less than one ounce of weed. In Revere, Police Chief Terence Reardon has pitched a similar measure, as have Melrose Police Chief Mike Lyle, Wakefield Police Chief Richard Smith, the majority of Everett aldermen, and Braintree district councilor Ronald DeNapoli, who is pushing for a $500 public-smoking ordinance.

"It certainly is the right of localities to enhance the penalties for marijuana possession," says Marijuana Policy Project Spokesman Dan Bernath, who helped shepherd the ballot question through this past November. "But it still might be good for them to sit back and see how this works as it was written — see if the $100 penalty is enough of a deterrent."

Efforts to "re-criminalize," as marijuana-reform advocates have termed the municipal scramble to enact supplementary slaps, were mostly spurred by Question 2's failure to address public consumption. As the law stands now, provocateurs can't burn in places designated off-limits by Massachusetts statutes that prohibit smoking anything — spaces such as trains and workplaces — but people can toke outside with little recourse. Furthermore, since Commonwealth residents are required to carry identification only when driving, folks can lie about their identity to cops issuing fines.

In an attempt to plug the gap in Question 2, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley — who publicly opposed the measure — has recommended "enforcement mechanisms" to local lawmakers who might also be reluctant to back the current statute. Coakley's solution: a $300 tandem penalty and a clause that would allow authorities to prosecute the civil violation with criminal indictments.

While officials in Worcester and West Newbury shot down bills to increase penalties — and there's no sign that the Boston City Council has a proposal in the pipeline — some locales are lining up behind Coakley's suggestions. Plymouth Police Chief Michael Botieri is reportedly considering criminalizing public marijuana use, as are Lynn city councilors and Medway selectmen. In Quincy, Mayor Tom Koch announced a plan to authorize an additional $600 in fines, for which violators would become criminally liable should they neglect to pay on time.

"This is in direct contradiction to the will of voters and a violation of the spirit of democracy," says Socialist Alternative Spokesman Nick Giannone, who joined about 60 other savage burnouts to protest a January 20 Quincy City Council meeting, and who is enjoying his full-fledged freedom while it lasts. "For now I'm not exactly trying to get fined, but I've definitely been a bit more open than I used to be. We'll see how long that lasts, though."

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