Weed arrests down since new law passed last year

by Beacon Staff • March 4, 2009

Since the implementation of a drug law passed by Massachusetts's voters last year, overall arrests and citations for marijuana possession are down in Boston compared to this time last year, according to the Boston Police Department.

The new law, enacted Jan. 1 of this year, decriminalizes possessing small amounts of marijuana.

From Jan. 1 to Feb. 25 in 2008 there were 343 class D arrests made by the BPD. Marijuana is defined as a class D substance in Massachusetts and the majority of class D arrests are for marijuana possession.

So far this year, BPD has issued 59 citations for possession of an ounce or less of the drug, and arrested 135 people on class D drug charges, a significant drop in all marijuana-related arrests and citations.

Despite the notable drop, BPD maintains that marijuana possession is still a priority for the department.

"Basically, any time there's a new law or process, officers need time to digest and become accustomed to it," said BPD spokeswoman Elaine Driscoll. "We would imagine that as time goes by the number of arrests would increase."

Under the new law, an adult who is caught with one ounce or less of marijuana is subject to a $100 fine, and forfeiture of the marijuana. The offender would be issued a civil citation, similar to a speeding ticket.

Juvenile offenders are subject to the same penalty provided they complete a drug awareness and community service program within one year of the citation. If a juvenile fails to complete the program within a year, they could face a $1000 fine and criminal charges, and their parents could be held liable.

Previously, individuals charged with possession of marijuana were fined as much as $500 and faced six months in jail.

Bill Downing, president of MassCann, the local chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws said he is pleased by the drop in marijuana-related arrests in Boston.

"Certainly it's fantastic," Downing said in a telephone interview. "I would much rather have police officers investigating things like violent crime, property crime and fraud, than to have them wasting their time in court testifying about marijuana possession."

Local student reaction to the law has also been positive.

"I think that the law's been well received, and people are still private about their usage," said Claire Bogan, a sophomore communication studies major. "I realize that there are a lot of socioeconomic issues concerning the sale of drugs, but I think it's a good law."

The law's ambiguity is of particular concern for police and a possible reason for the drop in marijuana arrests and citations.

The guidelines issued by the Boston Police Academy to all BPD officers note that in its current form, the law does not require a person caught with an ounce or less of marijuana to produce identification.

The memo states the lack of authority given to officers to identify violators will in certain cases prevent them from properly issuing citations to offenders.

"With regard to requiring an individual possessing a 'non-criminal' amount of marijuana," the memo reads, "the language in the proposed law is deficient, and will need legislative correction as soon as possible."

No legislation has been passed by the state legislature that would amend the law from its current form.