Smoking Pot In Public

March 25, 2009

More on the marijuana front in Massachusetts:

“Dozens of Massachusetts cities and towns are taking steps to impose stiff new fines for smoking marijuana in public and even to charge some violators with misdemeanors, a trend that critics say subverts the state ballot question passed overwhelmingly last fall to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana.

In recent weeks, at least seven communities – Duxbury, Lynn, Methuen, Medway, Milford, Salem, and Springfield – have passed bylaws that target people who light up in public. And two dozen cities and towns expect to vote this spring on similar measures, which proponents liken to local open container laws that ban drinking alcohol in public.

Police officials say they want to discourage flagrant marijuana smoking, particularly in public parks, schoolyards, and on beaches where young children gather. While last year’s ballot initiative reduced possession of an ounce or less from a misdemeanor to a civil infraction carrying a $100 fine, police say that some marijuana smokers mistakenly believe that the voters legalized the drug entirely.”

I think people need to calm down on both sides of this issue. First of all, I’m not a big fan of marijuana and I have a problem with the people (Bill Maher, this means you) who glorify its use. It’s dangerous, and it’s unhealthy. That having been said, however, it’s no more dangerous than a lot of other perfectly legal substances and activities, including alcohol and tobacco. For chrissakes, gambling is not only tolerated in nearly every state but in many states (including this one) is a government business. And criminal penalties for marijuana don’t work. They contribute to the creation of a criminal and violent black market. They destabilize producer countries. They do little if anything to reduce use (or abuse). They take nonviolent offenders and turn them into hardened criminals in our prison system. And the whole thing wastes tremendous sums of taxpayer money and government resources. And the hypocrisy of it all is that the majority of adults have, at some time or another, used marijuana. Again, I’m no proponent of marijuana use, but prohibition simply doesn’t work. For this reason alone I supported decriminalization.

But the state clearly has the authority and even the obligation to regulate its use. I’m sure few Massachusetts citizens want to see people smoking marijuana in front of the local elementary school or in the neighborhood playground, just as they would not want anyone drinking a six-pack there either. Instituting local penalties for this behavior seems perfectly reasonable. Do some people support these regulations because they’re just against marijuana use in general? Without a doubt. But I’m not certain the motives are all that important, provided the laws are relatively fair and in line with similar regulations for public drinking and drunkenness. I can’t say I support the introduction of misdemeanor charges except in the most serious categories (e.g., driving under the influence of marijuana), as this will likely create more problems than it solves, but stiff fines for public use, particularly in areas reserved for children, seems eminently reasonable.

And for the record, I’d support a ban on tobacco use in many of those same areas. There’s no upside to allowing people to smoke around kids at the playground.

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