Just weeks before registered voters take to the polls to decide the legalization of recreational marijuana, the New Bedford City Council is taking a preemptive approach in banning the substance in public areas across the city.

The proposed ordinance, filed by Ward 6 Councilor Joe Lopes, was passed by the Committee on Ordinances Tuesday evening by a 8-4 vote. Ward 1 Councilor Jim Oliveira and Ward 4 Councilor Dana Rebeiro voted in opposition. Councilor at Large Brian Gomes was not present.

The matter will be placed on Thursday night's City Council meeting's Late File agenda for a formal vote for adoption.

Lopes was looking to take the same approach as laws already on the books concerning alcohol.

"We looked at mimicking the open container law for somebody consuming alcohol in the street," Lopes said. "You're not allowed to consume alcohol on a street corner, on your own front steps, so this is the same protective measures that are in place for recreational use of alcohol as for marijuana use recreationally in the city."

Lopes added that the ordinance is focused on the recreational use of the drug and not aimed at medicinal marijuana.

New Bedford Police Chief Joseph Cordeiro spoke at length about his own concerns about legalizing marijuana and the dangers it poses to the community. He shared statistics from Colorado and Washington, D.C., which have both legalized the recreational use of the drug.

As for the ordinance itself, Cordeiro suggested that the council need to "add some teeth" to the ordinance in order for it to be effective.

“If you’re not going to pass an ordinance with the power of arrest, you might as well pass nothing,” Cordeiro said. 

Penalties for potential violators range from a fine of $5 to $300 and/or arrest.

Police officers will still have discretion when responding to such calls, but the ability to arrest is helpful for the enforcement of the ordinance.

"It would still leave it to officer discretion whether he wants to make the arrest or request a complaint or just draft a report and leave it at that," said the chief.

As for the opposition, Oliveira took the perspective of the business sector and saw the potential of arrest as a hindrance for somebody looking for employment.

“What we’re doing here is adding a whole layer of additional people who will be subject to having CORI issues for the misdemeanor of smoking marijuana,” said Oliveira.

However, after the meeting Oliveira said he understood where the police chief and his colleagues were coming from and he'll likely vote in favor of the ordinance on Thursday.

Councilor at Large Naomi Carney voted in favor of the ordinance, though pointed out enforcement will likely be tough.

“We have an ordinance banning smoking cigarettes in public places yet people do it all the time,” Carney said. “At the beach, public parks, everywhere I see it.”

According to the proposed ordinance, "It shall be unlawful for any person to smoke, consume, or otherwise use marijuana or prepare marijuana for any such use on any public way or area or way to which the public has right of access, or on any sidewalk appurtenant thereto within the city."

The ordinance also prohibits the use of marijuana in any motor vehicle "upon a public way" within the city.

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