Smoking Pot on the Boston Common Could Get Pricey

City officials want to raise the amount police can fine people smoking marijuana while in the public space.

Attending the annual “Freedom Rally” on the Boston Common could become an expensive event for pro-pot ralliers.

Boston City Councilor Bill Linehan wants to raise the cost of a citation, if caught smoking marijuana in public, by $200, and is specifically targeting the use of the drug by people who are mingling in the park.

“The public consumption of [marijuana] is a public safety issue in the city of Boston, in particular the Boston Common,” Linehan said in a resolution he filed this week at City Hall.

The legislation, if passed, would also target people smoking pot in other public parks, according to Linehan’s request. The proposed ordinance comes just weeks before the annual Boston Freedom Rally, also known as “Hempfest,” is set to take place on the Common where thousands of marijuana smokers gather to promote the positive aspects and uses of the drug, and push for full legalization.

The Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition, the state chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML, hosts the annual event.

Over the years, arrests of attendees have dwindled from 56 in 2006, to zero in 2011, after laws were passed in 2008 to decriminalize marijuana if a person was in possession of less than one ounce.

Citations have still been handed out over the years since the laws have changed, however. Last year, police gave out 34 $100 citations to event-goers who were allegedly in possession of the drug.

But because the possession of one ounce or less of marijuana is enforced by the non-criminal disposition procedures, the $100 citations are often ignored, said Linehan, which is why he wants to increase the penalties, and put some teeth into the law.

According to the wording in his proposal, Linehan wants to give police complete authority to handle the pot “problem” on the Common this year:

The Boston Police Department shall have the authority to enforce these provisions through any lawful means in law or equity including, but not limited to, enforcement by criminal indictment or complaint… Any person violating the prohibition of this section shall be subject to a fine of $300 dollars for each offense. Any penalty imposed under this section shall be in addition to any civil penalty imposed.

Linehan said “just like alcohol, although it’s legal to possess it, consuming it in a public place is not,” and the ordinance is to address the public use of pot so people who don’t want to be affected by it can “feel good about going to a public park or playground.”

He said if someone failed to give a valid ID, they could be arrested, and if the citation was not paid, officers could issue a warrant, according to his proposed ordinance. Linehan claims many people give police a phony name, or false identification, making it hard to enforce the current laws. “I’m not doing this [because of HempFest], it’s really—the thing that has precipitated us trying to find additional avenues for the police—is the consistent use of marijuana on the Common. It’s a coincidence that [Hempfest] is happening at the same time,” he said.

Regardless, sponsors and organizers of the annual event are upset about the attempt to raise the cost of a citation for using the drug while on the Common, a place where last year, even elected officials like former Congressman Barney Frank stood and applauded the crowd for their efforts to legalize marijuana in the state. “Politicians are supposed to put their fingers in the wind and detect a changing political climate. [Linehan] doesn’t seem to have his finger very high in the air. To argue for increased marijuana penalties runs afoul of the attitudes and values in Massachusetts about marijuana,” said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of NORML. “He is not following the mantra that ‘all politics are local,’ and the selective punishment of a 20-year event on the hallowed ground that’s supposed to represent the first amendment in its most functional form … it’s unfortunate he doesn’t’ see it as that.”

St. Pierre said judges would likely agree in court that “you can’t put a special punitive penalty on peoples’ first amendment abilities,” and that the rally is not a smoke-in, but rather a first amendment event. “It’s common sense legalism and public opinion,” said St. Pierre. “It’s fool hardy. Massachusetts has the highest rate of marijuana use in the country, and he is running afoul of the pot culture.”

This year’s Freedom Rally, described as the “second largest annual gathering of cannabis supporters in the world,” will span two days, for the first time in more than 20 years, and will take place on September 14 and 15 on the Common.

Since the use of medical marijuana was legalized, St. Pierre said there is no doubt that there will be greater discussions and patient concerns about full-on legalization in Massachusetts. “The eye on the prize is definitely on legalization,” he said.

Linehan’s proposal will be discussed during a full City Council hearing on Wednesday.