Pubdate: Sun, 18 Jan 2015
Source: Eagle-Tribune, The (MA)
Copyright: 2015 The Eagle-Tribune
Author: Shawn Regan


Police Chief, Councilor Support Criminalizing Public Pot Smoking, but 
Mayor Opposes It

HAVERHILL - City Council is expected soon to vote on a proposal to 
toughen the penalty for anyone caught smoking marijuana in public, 
including making it a criminal offense and increasing the fine from 
$100 to $300.

The proposed local law has the backing of police Chief Alan DeNaro 
and several city councilors, but not Mayor James Fiorentini.

The mayor said he would likely veto any ordinance that criminalizes 
the offense or increases the fine.

Existing state law allows police to issue a $100 civil citation for 
illegal possession of marijuana in public, but Haverhill lacks an 
ordinance allowing police to enforce the penalty, City Councilor 
Michael McGonagle said.

Without the ordinance, police can write the ticket for the civil 
fine. But if a person fails to pay, police cannot bring the matter to 
criminal court to force payment, McGonagle said.

"The police chief supports criminalizing public smoking of marijuana 
and I think it's time to move forward on this regardless of whether 
the mayor supports it or not," McGonagle said.

McGonagle, chairman of the council's Public Safety Committee, said 
the committee will hold a public meeting Wednesday at 7 p.m. at City 
Hall to review the ordinance and consider sending it to the full 
council for a vote.

"I'm going to ask my fellow councilors to pass it," McGonagle said. 
"And if the mayor wants to, he can veto it and we'll see if we have 
the votes to override his veto."

It takes five of the nine council votes to pass a non-zoning 
ordinance and six votes to override a mayoral veto.

About 80 Massachusetts communities have created local criminal laws 
banning public consumption of marijuana. They created those laws 
after Massachusetts voters passed a law in 2008 decriminalizing 
possession of less than an ounce of the drug.

"Right now, if there are two people and one is smoking pot and the 
other is drinking a beer, police can arrest the person drinking the 
beer but all the can do is give a ticket to the person smoking 
marijuana," McGonagle said. "And they don't even have to pay the 
ticket because there's nothing police can do if it's not paid. It's 
basically a voluntarily fine."

McGonagle said the proposed ordinance provides that police treat 
public drinking of alcohol and public smoking of marijuana equally. 
He said tougher penalties for smoking marijuana in public are 
especially needed now, in light of the growing heroin epidemic in 
Haverhill and the region.

"There's a debate about whether marijuana is a gateway to pain 
killers and harder, more dangerous drugs like heroin," McGonagle 
said. "But I've heard many stories recently from from addicts who say 
they got started in drugs by smoking pot in high school."

Fiorentini said he has mixed feeling on toughening the penalties for 
public consumption of marijuana.

"I don't want to give a kid a criminal record for smoking marijuana, 
but I do understand the concerns of police," the mayor said. "I'd 
like to find some middle ground I can support that makes it easier 
for police to collect fines. But I will veto anything that 
re-criminalizes smoking pot or increases the fine."

The mayor also said he's not convinced that people fined for smoking 
marijuana in public aren't paying. He said 39 residents have paid the 
civil fine for possession of marijuana in a public place in the past 
six months. He did not know how many tickets police have issued over 
that span, however.

The proposal to increase penalties for public consumption of 
marijuana comes as a company called Healthy Pharms moves forward with 
plans to open a regional medical marijuana dispensary in the Broadway 
Business Park off Route 97.

Haverhill is one of 15 Massachusetts communities selected by the 
state Department of Public Health for a dispensary, following passage 
three years ago of a state law allowing marijuana to be used by 
patients with a doctor's prescription.

City Council approved the dispensary zone in November, ending the 
city's ban on the facilities and allowing Healthy Pharms to submit a 
formal proposal to the council for a special permit.

Valerio Romano, a lawyer for Healthy Pharms and three other proposed 
dispensaries in Massachusetts, said the company is happy the council 
has selected a location for a dispensary. Romano said Healthy Pharms 
is committed to opening a dispensary in Haverhill, but that it has a 
lot of work to do before it is ready to make a formal proposal for 
the Broadway Business Park.

"We're anxious to be in Haverhill and start helping patients in Essex 
County who need and want medical marijuana," said Romano, who added 
the company is focused on developing smokeless forms of the drug, 
including food- and oil-based cannabis.

Romano acknowledged Healthy Pharms took some early missteps in its 
pursuit of a dispensary in Haverhill. He said the company is looking 
to "start fresh" with city officials and residents.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom