Thursday, November 06
To the disappointment of law enforcement officials statewide, Massachusetts voters overwhelmingly approved a binding Election Day ballot measure that decriminalizes possession of an ounce or less of marijuana.

More than 65 percent of Bay State voters supported Question 2, which replaces criminal penalties for possessing one ounce or less of pot with a civil fine of $100, or roughly the cost of a speeding ticket.

In Berkshire County, 60.3 percent of voters — or 38,787 people — supported Question 2, while 39.7 percent — or 25,586 people — opposed the measure, which goes into effect in 30 days.

Under the law, those caught with marijuana must pay a $100 fine and hand over the illegal drug. Minors caught with an ounce or less also must attend drug education and treatment classes and perform community service.

But local police officials are not happy with the measure. Not only does it send the wrong message to Berkshire County's younger residents, they said, but it could cost taxpayers and lead to a bureaucratic nightmare.

The new law will raise more legal questions than it answers and complicate drug laws rather than simplify them, according to officials.

"It's definitely going to make it more complicated for us to do our job," said Pittsfield Police Capt. Michael J. Wynn, the ranking officer in charge of the Berkshires' largest police department. "It sets up this huge realm of questions."

Wynn said the Pittsfield Police Department will have to develop a new citation and documentation system, for example, leading to administrative and legal headaches, not to mention additional costs.

It also creates a whole new set of questions for a police officer who confronts a person caught with just under an ounce of pot.

"Can we interview them? Can we interrogate them?" Wynn wondered. "It's going to be real tricky to figure out what this means, and there's no question that people are going to try to take advantage of this."

Berkshire District Attorney David F. Capeless said he was surprised by the level of support for the marijuana proposition.

"The size of the vote in favor of Question 2, to me, indicates that there is a deep-seated belief among the public that marijuana is not a big deal, and that the present laws are unduly harsh to users," Capeless said.

"As the father of two boys entering their teenage years, I hope that they will not be encountering a community attitude that says 'smoking dope is OK,' " he said.

Law enforcement officials yesterday warned that it would take time to institute the new law. Cape & Islands District Attorney Michael O'Keefe, the head of the statewide district attorney's association, said the state will be forced to establish a new system to adapt to the law, including retraining officers.

"We have a Registry of Motor Vehicles in this state," said O'Keefe. "But we don't have a registry of dope smokers yet. But, apparently, we will now."

Capeless echoed similar concerns, pointing out that local police agencies are not equipped to implement a new civil fine system for marijuana possession.

Implementing the law "raises some very serious problems," said Capeless, "because the proposition has never called for the provisions that would implement the details of the measure."

"I only ask now: Who's going to enforce collections of the fines? Who's going to oversee that kids are going to these treatment programs? In fact, who's going to pay for these programs?" Capeless said.

While the state Legislature could change, amend or nullify the binding referendum, lawmakers so far have not launched any effort to block implementation of Question 2, which was supported by 1,938,366 Massachusetts residents and opposed by 1,036,050.

Clarksburg was the only Berkshire community to defeat the measure, and just barely; 452 residents voted against Question 2, while 422 voted in favor. Every other Berkshire town, from Adams to Windsor, passed the measure by healthy margins.

In Pittsfield, for example, 11,480 people voted Yes, while 8,628 voted No. In North Adams — the county's second city — 3,392 residents approved the measure, while 2,364 opposed it. The Yes-No vote in Great Barrington was 2,478 to 1,114.

Dalton Police Chief John W. Bartels Jr. said the new law will have a ripple effect in local schools, particularly in situations where a student is found with a joint, or marijuana cigarette.

"Procedurally, it could effect school polices now that it's not a criminal offense," Bartels said.

And it could increase the incidence of "driving while stoned," according to officials.

"I think that it will promote a lot of use while operating a vehicle. I just have that feeling, particularly with a lot of our younger people," Bartels said. "If it's just a ticket, it's going to be, 'OK, I'll take my chances.' "

Massachusetts State Police Lt. Joseph P. McDyer, the head of the Berkshire County Drug Task Force, predicted the new law will cost "millions of dollars to enact," the brunt of which will be borne by taxpayers.

"It's going to cost my unit more time and money to enforce this if it becomes a civil law," McDyer said. "Would you rather have your police officers waiting in court — getting paid overtime — for a $100 civil violation instead of being out in the street?"

The new law also raises search-and-seizure questions, according to police officials.

"If I see a guy standing on the corner smoking a joint, that's illegal," McDyer said. "But, can I search him for other drugs? Do I write him a ticket? Are we going to bring scales out and measure every seizure we make? No one has thought this out."

The law, which will take "money and manpower" to enforce, "is overly burdensome to the police officer and to the court system," he said.

But what most irks McDyer, he said, is the attempt to water down penalties for illegal drugs: "So it's illegal to possesses (marijuana), but you can have it and don't have to tell us where you got it."

The veteran narcotics investigator said the law is just the "next step toward legalizing marijuana."

Meanwhile, supporters of the ballot question say police officials are panicking for no reason, noting that many departments already are equipped to issue citations on a range of non-criminal offenses. Supporters maintain that the new law will spare people from having a criminal record, which can make it difficult to get a job, a student loan or gain access to public housing.

"It's going to end the creation of thousands of new people being involved in the criminal justice system each year and refocus law enforcement resources on violent crime," said Whitney A. Taylor of the Committee for Sensible Marijuana Policy, the major proponent of Question 2 in Massachusetts.

Steven Epstein, an attorney who founded the Georgetown-based Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition in 1990, said police and prosecutors should stop "whining" about the law, which was endorsed by a majority of Bay State voters.

"The question (for law enforcement officials) is not how do we implement this law," Epstein said. "The question is how do we implement the will of 1,938,366 registered voters of the commonwealth of Massachusetts."

Epstein expressed no sympathy for police officers who say it will be difficult to measure an amount of marijuana that is seized in the field. "If they're really concerned, they can get a little postal scale. What's the big deal?" Epstein said.

Massachusetts is the 12th state in the nation to decriminalize possession of relatively small amounts of marijuana, though police officials reject the notion that an ounce is a small quantity of the drug. According to law enforcement estimates, an ounce can produce between 50 to 100 joints, depending on how much marijuana is used.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.