House bill cracks open door for public pot consumption

Cities and towns could allow cannabis cafes, public smoking of medicinal pot

BOSTON (State House News Service) – Much of the debate about local control of legalized marijuana has focused on how municipalities can ban pot shops.

Less attention has been paid to provisions of the marijuana bill (H 3776) the House passed this week that could theoretically allow people to smoke joints in public if local governments permit that activity.

Braintree Rep. Mark Cusack, the House chairman of the Committee on Marijuana Policy, said the likelihood of a city or town allowing for that is “slim.” The intention, he said, is to enable municipalities to permit cannabis cafes, marijuana consumption at special events, or to allow people to use medicinal marijuana in public places if necessary.

Last year’s ballot law that legalized growing, possession and the eventual regulated sale of marijuana also banned public consumption of marijuana outright. The ballot law also provides for regulated cannabis cafes and special event permits.

Continuing Coverage: Marijuana in Massachusetts

The House bill includes a $100 fine for “consuming or smoking marijuana in a public place in a manner that is not authorized by law, regulation or ordinance,” leaving the door open for regulation of public consumption. The bill bans consuming marijuana outright in places tobacco smoking is prohibited.

“Our interpretation is that that language specifies that a town does have the ability to allow public consumption if they wish,” Jim Borghesani, spokesman for the marijuana legalization ballot question, told the News Service. He said, “It’s curious that the House put in that language that does seem to open the door for public consumption if towns determine that’s what they wish.”

Borghesani said public consumption of marijuana was purposefully banned in the ballot question, which aimed to regulate marijuana like alcohol.

“Public consumption of marijuana should be approached like public consumption of liquor is: It’s not allowed. And that’s the way we wrote it in the initiative,” Borghesani said.

Lawmakers are rushing to overhaul the ballot law by the end of the month.

There are disagreements between the House and Senate over the rate of taxation and local control over the burgeoning industry. The House completely rewrote the ballot law, while the Senate aims to “amend and improve” the ballot law. The Senate bill, the subject of deliberations all day Thursday, preserves the existing ban on public use of marijuana and the provisions of the law allowing for cannabis cafes and special event permits.

Pro-marijuana activists sometimes toke up at public rallies, visually and fragrantly expressing themselves with plumes of cannabis smoke.

Even if the final version of the bill allows municipalities to sanction public pot smoking, there is little evidence local officials would actually pass ordinances to allow for that.

With 75.7 percent of local voters supporting the ballot question last November, Somerville had among the most lopsided victories for marijuana legalization in the state. Many other municipalities voted against the measure.

A Somerville spokeswoman said a hypothetical ordinance for smoking marijuana in public has not been a topic of discussion at City Hall. The city bans tobacco smoking at city events, in parks and other city-owned public spaces.