West Tisbury selectmen wrestle with second hand pot smoke

— File photo by Mae Deary

West Tisbury selectmen have discussed the possibility of seeking a town bylaw that would prohibit smoking pot in public places. The ramifications of a new state law that legalized the sale of medical marijuana prompted the discussion, at the selectmen’s meeting on January 23.

West Tisbury police Chief Dan Rossi proposed placing a bylaw question on the warrant of the spring annual town meeting to prevent potential complaints about people smoking marijuana in public places around town.

“A family sitting on the beach next to someone with a medical marijuana card who decides to smoke marijuana, that is bad or worse than second hand smoke,” the chief said, “I think this is a good bylaw for people who don’t want to ingest the second hand marijuana smoke . . . someone sitting on Alley’s stoop, or VTA bus stop, or Lambert’s Cove Beach just may not want to be around it.”

In November, Massachusetts voters approved a ballot initiative that allows qualified patients to use marijuana for medical purposes and purchase it from state-regulated centers. In some cases, the law also allows people to grow marijuana for their own use.

The law went into effect January 1, 2013. The state department of health is currently working on the specific regulations to implement it.

Town administrator Jen Rand said the town currently has no bylaw regulating the smoking of marijuana in public. “An individual right now could theoretically be smoking marijuana in a public place,” she said.

Selectman Richard Knabel questioned if the town should craft a bylaw that specifically targets marijuana. “Why single out marijuana?” he said. “Is this a solution in search of a problem?”

Mr. Knabel suggested that the town instead pursue a more general bylaw that addresses second hand smoke in general.

“[Marijuana] is still an illegal drug,” chief Rossi responded. “Tobacco is not.”

“This can get semantic in a hurry. You can have under an ounce of marijuana legally,” Mr. Knabel said, which brought a correction from the police chief.

“It’s not legal,” the chief said, “they decriminalized it. Before you could be placed under arrest, there is a big difference… It’s now a civil infraction for under an ounce, its now a civil fine of $100.”

Chairman Cynthia Mitchell said there is a bylaw in town that prevents the smoking of cigarettes in public places.

But Chief Rossi suggested it was better to have a bylaw that clearly stated that smoking marijuana in public was illegal. “Otherwise it may get into some type of argument of smoking what [is illegal] tobacco products?” he said.

Mr. Knabel said he worried about adopting a bylaw that would set West Tisbury apart from the rest of the Island regarding medical marijuana. He suggested the all-Island selectmen take the lead on the issue.

Ms. Mitchell said she felt differently. “I don’t see what’s wrong with putting it on the warrant for a discussion, if it’s going to go forward in other towns at some point anyways it’s just a matter of timing… I don’t see this is as particularly controversial.”

“I am saying at the moment it is premature,” responded Mr. Knabel. “I’m not saying I oppose it categorically… I don’t see an urgent need to do this until that time when there is a broader discussion any maybe some consensus arising.”

Selectman Jeffrey (Skipper) Manter, a sergeant on the town police force, was unable to participate in the discussion because of a potential conflict of interest.

Ms. Mitchell then asked for a motion to place the bylaw on the warrant of the annual town meeting. Mr. Manter was forced to abstain and Mr. Knabel did not make a motion.

Chief Rossi asked selectmen to place the issue on the agenda of the next all-Island selectmen’s meeting, to which they agreed.

“I leave it in your hands,” Chief Rossi said. “We don’t even have all the regulations yet as to what is going to happen with medical marijuana, and it was supposed to come out 120 days after it passed.

“We’ll wait on it and maybe revisit it.”