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Anxiety in Massachusetts over softer marijuana law

Some towns and cities seek stiffer penalties for public use, after state voters approved decriminalization.

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Massachusetts voters made history by approving a sweeping marijuana decriminalization law on Election Day, but campaign debates are reigniting as communities start to enforce the new rule.

The large margin of victory for the ballot initiative – 65 percent of voters approved the law – is already inspiring similar legislative efforts in other New England states, prompting close attention nationwide to the effects of a less stringent marijuana law.

Massachusetts is not the first state to decriminalize marijuana possession – 12 others have done so. But it is the first since the 1970s to eliminate criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of the drug, even for repeat offenders.

"There were changes in this direction between 1973 and 1978, but then that movement just stopped, and stopped dead," says Peter Reuter, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland and the former director of the Drug Policy Research Center at the RAND Corp. "It revitalizes a reform movement that had put laws like this on the back burner."

The law makes possession of an ounce or less of pot a civil offense punishable by a $100 fine (with minors required to attend a drug awareness program). At issue are the specifics. Some opponents, including many law enforcement officials, say the law is poorly written and nearly unenforceable. These complaints are accelerating efforts in towns and cities across the state to enact ordinances governing "public consumption," which the law's defenders fear might edge toward recriminalization.

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