Needham eyes stiffer fines for public marijuana use

As Massachusetts voters consider whether to legalize medical marijuana, Needham officials have drafted a proposal for a bylaw that would increase fines for consuming marijuana in public.

The purpose, according to proponents, is to send a message to the town’s teenagers that marijuana is still illegal.

“We’re not trying to design this to weaken medical marijuana, we were trying to design this to make sure there’s clear guidelines on what’s permissible in public spaces,” said Jane Fogg, a member of the Needham Board of Health who has worked on the proposal. “We have no desire to comment on what people do in the privacy of their home.”

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

The proposed bylaw has been in the works for about two years, and is not a direct response to the Nov. 6 ballot question on whether to legalize medical marijuana, but the question gave the effort new urgency, town officials said.

The bylaw is being proposed by Needham’s Board of Health, Police Department, and Public Health Department, and the Needham Coalition for Youth Substance Abuse Prevention.

Proponents say they hope to get the bylaw on the Town Meeting warrant next year. The Board of Selectmen has not taken a position on it, according to chairman Jerry Wasserman.

Under the proposal, police could seek a criminal complaint with a fine of $300 if someone is caught consuming marijuana in public, or issue a citation with a fine of $200, in addition to penalties that already exist.

In 2008, Massachusetts voters approved a ballot initiative that decriminalized possession of small quantities of marijuana. Possession of an ounce or less is punishable by a $100 fine.

If the medical marijuana question passes, qualifying patients will be allowed to possess a 60-day supply of marijuana for personal medical use. Next year, there could be no more than 35 nonprofit treatment centers, with at least one but no more than five in a county. Patients unable to make it to the centers would, under certain circumstances, be allowed to cultivate their own marijuana.

Supporters of the ballot question say medical marijuana has the potential to help thousands of people battling cancer, AIDS, Crohn’s disease, and other painful illnesses.

The question stipulates fines or jail time for people caught abusing the law, and it does not allow users to consume marijuana in public.

Still, officials in Needham worry that the combination of easier access to the drug and the perception that, as a medicine, it is not dangerous will lead to blasé attitudes among the town’s teenagers. Marijuana use appears to be rising in Needham’s public schools, according to a report, accompanying the bylaw in town materials, that cites school incident reports and student feedback.

According to Needham Police Lieutenant Chris Baker, his department has seen an uptick in marijuana possession in recent years. Between the time decriminalization took effect in 2009 and the end of August, he said in an e-mail, Needham officers cited 162 people for possession of less than an ounce of marijuana. In the four years before decriminalization, he said, police arrested or summonsed 46 people for possession of marijuana.

He declined to speculate on what police expect if medical marijuana is legalized.

“Marijuana needs to be respected for both its dangers and its benefits,” said Fogg. “It’s not a highly dangerous drug, but addiction occurs, secondhand smoke and carcinogen exposure are real dangers, and can’t be taken lightly.”

As the election draws closer, communities across the area have reacted differently to the possibility of legalized medical marijuana.

In some towns, officials haven’t even discussed it.

“It hasn’t even been on the radar,” said David Alper, chairman of the Belmont Board of Health. Officials are waiting to see whether the law passes, he said, though it will be a topic of discussion at his board’s next meeting. “We don’t want to come out and take a firm position plus or minus if it’s a nonissue.”

“We have lots of things to work on, and frankly the issue has not even come up,” said Wellesley Executive Director Hans Larsen.

But in other communities, youth organizations, in particular, are concerned about how the passage of the question would affect teenagers.

Natick Together for Youth, a community coalition affiliated with the town’s schools, is remaining neutral on whether the question should pass, but project director Erica Dinerman said the group’s members are worried about what message its passage would send to youth.

“I guess I would echo the concerns of Needham, just based on how the law is written, and what the regulations are around how it’s going to be monitored, and how that will affect youth access,” said Dinerman. “Since marijuana was decriminalized, youth in particular are confused about what that means, and confused about legality . . . kids will say that marijuana is legal.”

The coalition is not taking a position on the question, she said, and is instead trying to educate the public about what its passage would mean, letting people make their own decisions.

Since marijuana was decriminalized, according to Needham officials, more than 80 towns and cities have increased the fine for public consumption.

“It doesn’t make it criminal, it just bumps up the fine,” said Fogg. “One hundred dollars did not feel like it was dissuading people.”

Officials are not trying to block access to medical marijuana, she said. Rather, they are trying to ensure that public spaces stay marijuana free.

“We expect there will be more availability of marijuana for both legitimate medical users, patients, as well as people who are not legitimate,” if the measure wins approval, she said. “If somebody has a card for medical marijuana and is smoking on their property, that is perfectly fine. If they went to the middle of town in the Fourth of July parade, and they were smoking in public, that is an intoxicant, and not appropriate.”