By Matt Scoble. Read as PDF. America is currently undergoing a major shift in drug policy. In recent years, about a dozen states have either decriminalized marijuana or legalized it for medical purposes. Many other states are considering doing the same. Massachusetts is one of the most recent states to decriminalize so-called “simple possession” of marijuana.
Massachusetts voters, rather than the Legislature, changed and reformed the law on marijuana by passing the Sensible Marijuana Policy in a ballot initiative. It substitutes civil fines for criminal penalties for possession of less than an ounce of marijuana. This policy initiative was designed to address the societal costs of prosecuting marijuana possession cases. The change means no one faces the lifelong stigma of having been arrested for marijuana possession. It also frees up precious law enforcement resources for fighting violent and other serious crime.
Under the old Massachusetts law anyone arrested for possession of any amount of marijuana faced up to six months in jail, a fine of up to $500 and a lifelong criminal record. The initiative reformed the law by replacing criminal penalties with $100 fines payable to the municipality where the offense occurred; eliminating criminal records for minor marijuana related infractions; maintaining penalties for selling, growing, and trafficking marijuana, as well as for driving under the influence of marijuana; and requiring additional penalties for minors such as parental notification, compulsory drug awareness program, and 10 hours community service. It also requires a $1,000 fine and possible delinquency proceedings for those under 17 who do not comply with the terms of their community service or fines.
The changes have caused some confusion in the legal community and also some frustration among law enforcement due to the difficulty of collecting of civil fines imposed by this new law.
The collection of the fines has been difficult because offenders often give fictitious names knowing it is unlawful for law enforcement authorities to demand identification for civil offenses. This unexpected identification issue makes punishment for simple possession elusive. Law enforcement faces another hurdle in collecting the $100 fines: it can cost more to collect the fine than the value of the fine.
Enforcement of the drug awareness classes for juveniles caught with marijuana has proven difficult as well. The family of the juvenile is responsible for compliance with the drug awareness program, but sometimes families can’t afford the program or there are no such programs available in a particular area.
The law must be changed to mandate identification when a person is caught with small amounts of marijuana. This will allow municipalities to follow up with both collection of the fines and to determine if the offender is a juvenile. To address the high costs of trying to collect the civil fines, an increased monetary penalty should be implemented to make it worth the police department’s time to go after offenders.
Another problem can be solved by providing adequate funding for juvenile drug awareness programs. If a percentage of the fines collected went to funding the awareness programs, it would show that the government is serious about curbing juvenile drug use by providing the tools necessary to address the problem.
The drafting of this law has caused many to question whether the true intent was decriminalization of simple possession or to make small amounts legal. This law has caused many unnecessary headaches by law enforcement and citizens by failing to provide clear ways to implement the changes it mandates.
Matt Scoble is a third-year law student in the evening division at Suffolk University Law School, with an interest in criminal prosecution and election reform. He received his B.A. in Political Science from West Virginia University in 2004. Matt plans on continuing his career in his home state of Virginia after graduation.