KEENE – As city councilors debate a resolution to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana, a small group has quietly taken matters into their own hands — lighting up on Central Square.
“Every day at 4:20 p.m., we get together to smoke pot in the square,” Noah Wood, 19, of Keene said yesterday. “Everyone smokes it. Well maybe not everyone, I’m sure, but a lot of people smoke it and so why keep it a secret? Why keep it illegal? It should be out in the open.”
In the drug subculture, 420 refers to the consumption of marijuana.
Wood said he wasn’t the one to start the local movement, he’s just been helping by passing the word.
“This kid said to me ‘Hey, I heard there’s smoking going on in the common,’ ” said Jason Hart, 20, who identified himself as a student at Franklin Pierce University in Rindge. “I’m just against prohibition. It doesn’t work.”
Hart said over the last week, the number of smokers at Central Square has grown to about 30.
“No one’s really hassled us,” said Wood. “We’ve seen police circling the square, but no one’s said anything. You know, look at us, we’re out here chilling, doing our thing. No one’s gotten hurt. There’s no fights, no car crashes, no one’s died. No one’s even really noticed.”
Last night Sgt. James Cemorelis said the department has not received any reports of marijuana smoking on the square, but now that officers have been alerted, will be keeping an eye out.
Just a few hundred feet away at Keene City Hall yesterday afternoon, retired Keene police officer and former city councilman Frederick Parsells, 62, stood on the steps, talking with City Councilor James Duffy about voting for a resolution that would support medical marijuana and decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana.
The resolution essentially has no legal weight if passed — it would just be a strong message sent to state legislators, Parsells said.
“I wanted us to send a message to other places like Salem, places like Portsmouth, other municipalities that we back this and it’s something they might want to consider backing too,” Parsells said. “Keene’s always kind of been on the cutting edge of things like that.” Not that Parsells always has been. He admits as a cop, he saw things more “black and white.”
But now he said, “It’s more a hazy gray.”
“The war (on drugs) is over,” Parsells said. “We lost. … We’ve spent millions upon millions of dollars to stop its import and distribution, all to no avail. I don’t condone the use of drugs. I’m 62, I served in Southeast Asia where I understand the stuff was quite popular and quite easy to get and I didn’t use it then, I never used it. … But I feel like our laws are an overreaction.”
Gov. John Lynch vetoed a bill legalizing medical marijuana use in July.
Attempts to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana have gotten support in the New Hampshire House, but have never made it into law.
Parsells sent a letter to the Keene City Council a few weeks ago requesting that it look at the issue.
“I just hate to see it when one moment’s indiscretion, one night of stupidity, ruins some 17-year-old kid’s chances to get into college, or the military or from getting meaningful employment,” Parsells said. “Young people do stupid things; smoking pot is a stupid thing, but it’s not the end of the world.”
Much to Parsells’ surprise, the council took up the issue, sent it to committee and voted on it last week.
Though it failed by a very slim 8-7 margin, there was confusion over the vote on whether to write a resolution to decriminalize the drug, so the issue will be taken up again next Thursday, said Councilor Mitchell Greenwald.
Technically, the resolution passed by a 9-5 vote. But, Greenwald said that Councilor Arnold Bailey, after arguing against marijuana for the entire meeting, was confused and voted to pass the motion, instead of voting against it. Greenwald said Bailey tried to have the issue reconsidered at last week’s meeting to no avail, because the meeting had adjourned.
“First of all, if we write the resolution, it’s totally meaningless,” said Greenwald. “We are not a home rule state. We have to follow the federal and state drug laws. … So all this is, is a very loud message from the city of Keene that we back this, and I don’t know if that’s true.”
The main argument of the council members against the move is that they don’t feel the issue is in the purview of a city council.
“OK, then why don’t we talk about health care? Pesticides? Global Warming? Peace in the Middle East, while we’re at it,” Greenwald said.
“My fear is that we are going to get so caught up in other issues that are not our business and drifting into philosophy that we will be unable to do the business that the people sent us here to do.”
Councilor Paula-Ayn Phillips said she was afraid backing a resolution or law that decriminalizes marijuana could lead people to not being punished for driving or flying under the influence of drugs or could encourage people like surgeons to operate under the influence.
Missing from last week’s meeting was Councilor Margaret Lynch, who said that if the resolution comes back to council, she will vote for it.
“I am in support of decriminalizing marijuana,” she said. “I think that it would keep people out of jail which will save taxpayer money and will save some kid lifelong disappointment for making one mistake.”
Lynch said she’s not surprised the measure has made it as far as it has.
“In this part of the state,” she said. “We tend to be a little more with it.”