Pubdate: Tue, 14 Feb 2012
Source: Patriot Ledger, The  (Quincy, MA)
Copyright: 2012 GateHouse Media, Inc.
Author:  Christian Schiavone, The Patriot Ledger


Police and prosecutors on the South Shore are praising a ruling by 
the state's highest court that affirms their ability to charge 
someone with intent to distribute marijuana even if they're caught 
with a small amount of the drug.

The Supreme Judicial Court on Monday released a ruling overturning a 
lower court's decision that a Great Barrington man could not be 
charged with intent to distribute marijuana because he had less than 
an ounce of the drug and there was no sale or transaction. Passage of 
a 2008 ballot question made possession of an ounce or less of 
marijuana a non-criminal offense subject to a $100 fine in 
Massachusetts. But the high court's ruling said that referendum did 
not affect laws or penalties for suspects caught with any amount of 
marijuana and evidence that they intended to distribute it, even if 
the distribution doesn't involve a sale. "It appears that the court 
has upheld a separate and distinct crime of intent to distribute," 
Norfolk County District Attorney Michael Morrissey said of the 
ruling. "It'll help settle some cases we have on the books and send a 
strong message to people who are distributing." Police say it's not 
hard to tell the difference between a stash meant for personal use 
and one meant to by divvied up among buyers.

Several small, equally apportioned bags of marijuana, cash from 
previous sales and even a scale or a ledger listing names of buyers 
and the amounts they paid are all considered telltale signs of intent 
to distribute. In the Great Barrington case, the man charged, Shawn 
Keefner, was caught with three sandwich bags each containing two 
grams of marijuana with a combined weight of less than a quarter of 
an ounce, according to the court ruling. A district court judge ruled 
that Keefner could not be criminally charged because of the amount of 
marijuana and because there was no sale or transaction. The high 
court's ruling said prosecution for possession with intent to 
distribute isn't limited to cases where there is a sale, but it did 
not explicitly define what actions are considered distributing. 
Hingham Police Sgt. Steven Dearth said since the 2008 referendum, 
many dealers don't think they can be charged if they're caught with 
less than an ounce of marijuana. "They are surprised at that," Dearth 
said. "People still believe, at least the ones we've arrested, they 
can do anything if it's under an ounce."

But while Monday's ruling affirmed current police practice, several 
officers and prosecutors said the post-2008 referendum law still 
needs tightening, including stepping up penalties for anyone younger 
than 21 caught with marijuana to put the law on par with restrictions 
on minors possessing alcohol. "An 18-year-old kid can stand outside a 
police station and smoke a joint, and all he gets is a $100 ticket," 
Weymouth police Capt. Richard Fuller said. "If the same kid is 
drinking a beer, he could get arrested. Decriminalization of 
marijuana sent the wrong message to kids."
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