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Marijuana citation in drug bust may be 1st issued under new law

By Matt Collette and John M. Guilfoil
Globe Correspondents / January 4, 2009
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A Holyoke man could be the first person in Massachusetts cited for possession of marijuana, an action that lost its criminal status Friday because voters approved a decriminalization referendum in November. However, 29-year-old Jose Burgos could still face prison time on charges of trafficking cocaine and possession of a Class A substance with intent to distribute.

Springfield police said they found 0.2 grams of marijuana in Burgos's pocket during his booking. He was arrested Friday by the city's vice control unit, which alleges that Burgos had 119 crack cocaine rocks and 45 bags of heroin in his car. Burgos is being held on $50,000 bail and is scheduled be arraigned tomorrow in Springfield District Court.

Law enforcement officials said yesterday that most arrests for possession of marijuana are made in conjunction with other drug seizures.

"You rarely see people getting arrested for under an ounce of marijuana. Usually it was a wiseguy or it was an arrest leading to something else," said Sergeant Sean Sweeney of the Barnstable Police Department. No one in Barnstable had been issued a citation for marijuana possession as of midday yesterday, Sweeney said.

Yesterday, the Globe contacted police departments across the state, inquiring about marijuana citations. Only Springfield reported issuing a ticket.

A spokesman for the Boston Police Department said he was unable to determine whether any citations had been issued.

Some law enforcement officials told the Globe on Friday that they would probably not ticket offenders because the law is so poorly written it is difficult to enforce.

Other police departments said that while the law has changed, enforcement will not.

"It'll be business as usual, just a different way of taking care of it," said Officer Todd Neale of the Athol Police Department.

Sergeant Richard Perry of the Bellingham Police Department said officers expect to issue tickets for possession, but have not worked out the logistics.

"I can tell you that they're working on how we would fine the person," Perry said. "So right now it would be pretty much the way most departments are handling it: We'd confiscate [the marijuana] and identify the person and send them on their way."

Under the marijuana decriminalization law, offenders who are caught with an ounce or less of marijuana get a ticket for a civil violation, but are not criminally charged. Juveniles have to pay the $100 fine and attend a drug abuse counseling course, or the fine will be increased to $1,000.

A spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that rallied support for the ballot initiative known as Question 2, said yesterday that he had not heard of any marijuana possession citations being issued. Bruce Merkin predicted that the drug culture in Massachusetts would not change significantly.

In the 11 states that had already decriminalized marijuana, rates of use are about the same," Merkin said. "It's not something that people think about every day, even people who use marijuana regularly. It's just not as big a deal as some of the district attorneys are making it out to be."

Globe correspondents Adam Sell and Emily Canal contributed to this report.

Matt Collette can be reached at mpcollette@globe.com.

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