Court Says Passing a Joint Between Friends Isn’t Considered Marijuana Distribution

The highest court in Massachusetts ruled that sharing a pot cigarette with others isn't as nefarious as being a dealer.


At a time when Massachusetts is getting ready to welcome up to 35 marijuana dispensaries, the state’s highest court recently ruled that passing a joint between friends isn’t considered distribution of the drug.

On April 5, judges from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court concluded that “the observation by police that an individual possesses a small amount of marijuana does not justify a warrantless search,” and sharing a marijuana cigarette between two or more parties does not constitute distribution. The decision stemmed from 2012 case where two Boston Police officers arrested a man at the Boston Freedom Rally on the Common, where activists gather annually to call for legalization, because he was passing a joint to two other attendees while sitting on the bench.

According to court documents, after police seized the cigarette they conducted a “warrantless search of the defendant’s person and backpack.” The documents state that, in the backpack, officers found a substance resembling marijuana packaged in small plastic bags, with a total weight of less than one ounce. The defendant was arrested and charged with possession of a class D substance with intent to distribute. Court documents show that the defendant moved to suppress the evidence obtained from the warrantless search of his backpack, claiming that the search violated his Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

Based on a law passed in 2008, which states that anyone caught with less than one ounce of marijuana be handed a civil infraction and fine rather than face arrest and criminal prosecution, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the defendant. “We now decide that the social sharing of marijuana is akin to simple possession, and does not constitute the facilitation of a drug transfer from seller to buyer that remains the hallmark of drug distribution. We therefore conclude that the social sharing of marijuana does not violate the distribution statute,” judges stated in the court ruling issued on April 5. Based on the ruling, police had no reason to conduct the search of the defendant’s belongings.

Matthew Segal, legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, says the ruling is a win for the state and the people of Massachusetts. “It’s a great ruling … and it’s a great thing for the people of the Commonwealth for two reasons; first, they won’t be prosecuted or sent to jail just for sharing marijuana, and second, it means that the possibility that marijuana sharing is going on can’t be used by the police as a means to search the bags and belongings of those people.”

Segal says in addition to protecting the rights of citizens, who voted to both legalize medicinal marijuana in November 2012 and decriminalize the drug in 2008, it will also be good for overall public safety because police will be forced to focus more on actual crimes, rather than “trying to drum up distribution charges” against those sharing a joint. “One of the points made by the court was, that under federal law, the sharing [of a joint] is treated a possession—even under harsh federal laws. So it stands to reason where our drug laws are not as harsh as federal laws, at the very least the sharing should be [considered the same].”