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METHUEN

Push to hike drug fine set for final vote

By Connie Paige
Globe Correspondent / January 29, 2009
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Marijuana enthusiasts lobbying to shoot down a proposal in Methuen to boost penalties for possession of the drug to $400 recently earned a surprising partial victory: The City Council did vote to hike the fines, but only to $200.

The run-up to the preliminary vote this month showed how vexing the issue can be, as many area officials vacillate on whether to live with a new state law decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana or toughen it.

"I'm sort of right on the fence," said Methuen City Council President Deborah R. Quinn in an interview after the vote. "I agree with decriminalization. But I'm not so sure a large penalty is going to do anything different than what the law already says. Also, I'm not so sure how the police are going to enforce it."

Meanwhile, a statewide police professional agency has filed legislation to address some of the complaints lodged against the new law, according to A. Wayne Sampson, executive director of Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association Inc.

Methuen rushed into the breach to stiffen penalties, after the new state law went into effect Jan. 2. In many other area communities, including Andover, Chelmsford, Lowell, North Andover, Tewksbury, and Tyngsborough, officials said they are discussing the possibility, but have yet to move on it. The mood of officials in still other communities, such as Groton, Pepperell, and Westford, appears to be decidedly "never mind."

The new state law, which makes it a civil instead of a criminal offense to possess an ounce of marijuana or less and allows police to levy a fine of $100 for infractions, has drawn criticism from the state attorney general, district attorneys, and police associations. Some have recommended following a provision in the law, passed by about 65 percent of the voters, that permits communities to use local ordinances or bylaws to stiffen the penalty.

That is the goal of Lowell Mayor Edward C. Caulfield, who calls the new law "ridiculous." Caulfield ranks among those who believe the law, passed by voters in November as ballot Question 2, will encourage use of marijuana and possibly a variety of illicit narcotics.

"The voters should have left [the law] alone," Caulfield said.

Caulfield predicted that the Lowell City Council will overwhelmingly pass a new ordinance once a proposal is offered. Caulfield said he believes councilors will not be deterred by political pressure because of the belief that marijuana can cause harm.

"Drugs are the ruination of the country," Caulfield said. "Drugs ruin not only teenagers, but also entire families."

Like many doubters, Andover Police Lieutenant Commander James Hashem said he believes the new law "sends the wrong message." Still, Hashem said while there has been talk of change in his town, nothing has come of it yet. The same is true in Tewksbury, where Town Manager David G. Cressman said police there are working on a new ordinance.

Tyngsborough Police Chief William Mulligan said, while not happy with the law, he is waiting on state professional associations for recommendations as to what to do next.

Sampson said his association is trying to overturn one aspect of the law that disturbs many police: the lack of authority by police to demand identification from those caught with pot.

Chelmsford Police Chief James F. Murphy said that possession of small amounts of marijuana does not appear to be a pressing crime in Chelmsford, with only 27 people charged with it last year. "I guess that's a concern, but it's not like it's 250 or 300 people," he said.

Murphy said before making any moves, he is watching what happens elsewhere. He pointed out that if one community has a stiffer penalty than its neighbor, marijuana smokers might just slip over the border to have a toke.

Westford selectmen chairman Robert Jefferies said a patchwork of different marijuana laws across the state could prove challenging. "I think it's going to cause more legal problems than it will solve," he said.

Now that the issue has been raised in Methuen, however, officials must respond.

Mayor William M. Manzi III was the first to sound the alarm. Earlier this month, on his blog, billmanzi.com, Manzi suggested an ordinance to raise the penalty to $400 for people caught with small amounts of marijuana in city playgrounds, parks, and other common areas.

But, at the urging of marijuana proponents who attended the recent City Council meeting, Manzi amended his proposal to $200, and the council approved. At its next meeting, on Monday, the council may take its final vote on the measure.

Or maybe not.

While voting yes for the amended penalty the first time, council president Quinn said she is now up in the air. "On the one hand, you don't want a bunch of kids or adults smoking pot in parks and lakes and recreational spots, if you're standing there with your family," she said. "On the other hand, I don't want to see a kid 15 years old that has a joint be arrested and have it be a felony and [have his record] follow him for life. I really don't know what I'm going to do."

Connie Paige can be reached at connie_paige@yahoo.com.

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