Open containers and smoking joints

To the Editor:

Last week the West Tisbury special town meeting indefinitely postponed a proposed bylaw governing the use of medicinal marijuana in public places. It will presumably come up again at the annual town meeting in April. Last week’s meeting was unable to take action because it got sidetracked in comparing marijuana smoking in public places with tobacco smoking in public places. Were the risks to public health similar? Was second-hand marijuana smoke more or less injurious than second-hand cigarette smoke? Would it be somehow unfair for the bylaws to treat them differently?

While I agree with Chief Dan Rossi that second-hand marijuana smoke is a public health issue, I think it is a very minor one. The important issue is the use of an intoxicating agent (even for medicinal purposes) in public places. Upon reflection, I now think the proposed bylaw should have been presented to the town meeting as a variation of the “open-container” law.

For centuries there have been laws against public drunkenness. This is common sense. Drunkenness is unattractive at best and dangerous at worst. The problem for the police is that proving drunkenness requires blood or breath tests and witnesses. The “open-container” rule is a way to help police prohibit drinking in public places (other than bars or restaurants) and thereby perhaps head off public drunkenness before it happens. No sensible person would argue that merely carrying an open container of alcohol is of itself any more dangerous to the public than carrying an open container of air. The point is that a container of alcohol is ready to be used, and perhaps shared surreptitiously with others not eligible to drink. The police don’t have to see a person drinking from the container. The open container itself is a violation. The point is not to send someone to jail or collect a fine, but to avoid trouble.

Experts say only a small number of persons will be certified to use marijuana for medicinal purposes on Martha’s Vineyard, perhaps 150 Island-wide. Alarmists say that the number will be higher, particularly in summer, when some may bring their “licenses” with them from other states. Whatever is the case, it is probably true that most persons certified to use medicinal marijuana will use it responsibly at home. We are making a rule for the tiny percentage of certified persons who want to use their certification to party with friends at a concert or on the beach, perhaps even passing the joint around. While there is a certain amount of negative thinking in making such a bylaw, it is a sensible precaution, for the same reasons that the open container rule is a sensible tool for the police to have.

However, there is also a long-term reason for establishing such a precedent. The day is coming, I am sorry to say, when the recreational use of marijuana will be legal. It will be regulated as to who can use it (adults, probably) and who can sell it (still to be determined). It seems certain to me that police will then need an “open-container” law for marijuana. Perhaps it will be a “lit-joint” law or a “smoke in the air” law. I imagine that the rule will be applied just as the open-container rule is today. To me, it makes sense to put this law on the books now, even though it will seldom be needed.

Dan Cabot

West Tisbury