Marijuana related laws are an area of increasing concern throughout the US. A significant move towards decriminalization is becoming more common; currently marijuana has been decriminalized in at least 10 states, including Alaska, California, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Michigan. Medical marijuana use is becoming more prevalent, and has been legalized in at least 17 states. Outright legalization has happened in two states, Colorado and Washington, through ballot initiatives.
It is more important than ever that the public be well-informed about the state of the laws related to marijuana use, possession and distribution. Massachusetts has not legalized marijuana, but there has been a fundamental shift towards decriminalization, and away from prosecution especially for casual users of the drug.
Marijuana Possession: The Move to Decriminalization
While marijuana possession is legal in some states, it remains illegal in Massachusetts. There is no acceptable amount of marijuana that a person may legally have in his or her possession. All amounts of marijuana are illegal. The level of awareness required for a conviction of a marijuana related offense is to “knowingly or intentionally” possess marijuana, under the statute. It is good to keep in mind, though, that it is probably difficult to persuade police that possession is accidental or unintentional, in most cases. (Mass. Gen. Laws Ch. 90 § 24.)
As of 2008, though, through a ballot initiative called the Massachusetts Sensible Marijuana Policy Initiative, ballot question 2, the public voted in favor of decriminalization. Previously, marijuana possession had been punishable by up to 6 months in jail and $100 fine. The ballot measure also ended the practice of collecting personal information about those found with marijuana in their possession, in reports known as Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) reports.
Possession of a small amount, up to one ounce of marijuana in their possession, is considered a violation. This is a civil offense, not a criminal offense, with a flat fine of $100. As a civil offense, it does not affect one’s criminal record as much as a criminal offense, but it should still not be taken lightly. Possession of more than one ounce of marijuana, changes the violation to a misdemeanor, a criminal offense. The penalty is a fine, $500, and possible jail term of up to six months. A first offense automatically results in probation rather than jail time. (Mass. Gen. Laws Ch. 90 § 24.)
Possession Distinguished from Sales of Small Amounts of Marijuana
It is important to note that the court in Massachusetts ruled just this year not to decriminalize even the smallest sales of marijuana. Those offenses remain criminal offenses. The court held that “the sale of any amount of marijuana remains a criminal offense under G.L. c. 94C, § 32L… and] is not limited solely to situations where the “distribut[ion]” involves a sale.” Commonwealth v Keefner, 461 Mass. 507 (2012)
Distribution, Trafficking, and Possessing and selling Drug Paraphernalia
All of the activities that constitute distribution, trafficking, and possessing and selling drug paraphernalia are considered serious crimes and are felonies, punishable by a year or more in prison.. Paraphernalia includes items used in growing, harvesting, processing, selling, storing, or using marijuana. As with other drug offenses, penalties generally increase if the illegal activity was directed at or included minors. (Mass. Gen. Laws Ann. § 32E.)
Massachusetts Drugged Driving
In Massachusetts, driving under the influence includes that of marijuana, narcotic drugs, depressants or stimulant substances. Mass. Gen. Laws Ann. ch. 90 § 24(1)(a)(1)
Massachusetts has an implied consent law that requires drivers to submit to automatic drug testing at the request of law enforcement, in exchange for driving on Massachusetts roads. (Mass. Gen. Laws Ch. 90 § 24 (f))
Refusal to submit to a drug test results in automatic license suspension for a minimum of 180 days, with increasing time periods for younger offenders, and also for repeat offenders.
Drugged driving can result in house arrest, significant fines, and having one’s license suspended for a year. Second offenses have an automatic lock up period of at least 30 days, license suspension for 2 year, and significant fines. A third offense is automatically a felony, even though the minimum penalty is 180 days in jail, with increasing penalties, fines, and jail terms for subsequent offenses.
Sobriety checkpoints have been upheld under state and federal law in Massachusetts. State law does not require a showing of probable cause to stop someone at a sobriety checkpoint. Commonwealth v. Shields, 521 N.E.2d 987 (Mass. 1988) Out of concern that allowing narcotics searches would lead to generalized searches by the police, similar random checkpoints have not been upheld for attempts to seize narcotics. The “exception for operating while under the influence roadblock to reasonable suspicion requirements is very narrow. ? Because of the limited scope of those decisions, we rejected the “argument that the result we reach[ed] opens the door for suspicionless searches and seizures in other contexts…” Com. v. Rodriguez, 722 N.E.2d 429 (2000)
Medical Use of Marijuana
The people of Massachusetts voted in favor of the use of medical marijuana in the last election, uses as prescribed by a physician, for a variety of medical conditions, as described in the ballot petition. The ballot language was as follows: “A YES VOTE would enact the proposed law eliminating state criminal and civil penalties related to the medical use of marijuana, allowing patients meeting certain conditions to obtain marijuana produced and distributed by new state-regulated centers or, in specific hardship cases, to grow marijuana for their own use.” Medical Marijuana Ballot Question
To implement the law, registration cards will be issued to those with their physician’s approval. Getting a registration card involves an application process that includes proper identification and authorization from a physician. Persons with the described conditions who are issued the registration cards will be able to get medication from medical marijuana treatment centers, or dispensaries. To discourage fraudulent use of the cards, such use will constitute a misdemeanor. If the use is for trafficking in marijuana or nonmedical use for profit, the charge is changed to a felony and the person can get up to 5 years in prison.
While Massachusetts has made a significant shift towards decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana, there are significant penalties for certain uses, and for having or trafficking in significant amounts of the drug. Drugged driving and violation of the new medical marijuana laws also will yield a significant penalties and costs, including jail time and large fines.