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Massachusetts Voters: Ready for Recreational Marijuana?

June 10, 2016
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Don’t light up yet – voters still pondering the issue

The question of whether Massachusetts should go beyond its medical marijuana program and legalize recreational marijuana is not an easy one for voters.

In many recent polls, voters favored legalizing marijuana by margins ranging from strong to slim. However, even while public opinion seems to be clearly in favor of legalization, public officials across party lines and at both local and state levels oppose legalization, and have been pushing against the measure.

Perhaps because of the campaign against legalization led by Governor Charlie Baker, Attorney General Maura Healey and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, the most recent polls see the question at a virtual tie.

In November, the Regulation and Taxation of Marijuana Act will go before voters, if proponents get the required number of signatures to get it on the ballot. The ballot, following the lead of Colorado and Washington, would make it legal for adults of at least 21 years to own up to one ounce of marijuana outside their home, and up to 10 ounces within their home, provided it is locked up and stored properly. Adults could also grow up to 12 plants per home.

Opponents of the bill, operating as The Campaign for a Safe and Healthy Massachusetts, claim that legal pot would be dangerous to children, and would not financially benefit the state. They state that increased health care and public safety costs would outweigh any tax revenue.The group includes legislators, law enforcement, health care professionals, educators, and parents.

Supporting the bill is The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, which claims that legalization would cripple the black market for pot, save money now spent pursuing and prosecuting marijuana possession, and keep pot out of the hands of children. ͞Prohibition has failed,͟ said Jim Borghesani, spokesman for the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol.͞All it has done is enriched gangs and cartels and made access to marijuana easier for young people. We think a regulated system would be a much more effective method of eliminating the illicit market and closing off access to young people.

The opposition campaign argues that legalizing pot leads to its commercialization, opening the door for advertising and making the product appealing to children. They point to the example of the tobacco industry, which had long been accused of doing just that before regulations restricted its advertising.

Members of the Massachusetts state senate, led by State Senator Jason Lewis (D-Winchester), visited Colorado and spoke with experts to learn more about their legal marijuana program. After further study, the committee released a report in March which did not support legalization. In a cryptic statement, Lewis, chairman of the Special Senate Committee on Marijuana, said, “My position is not that I’m fundamentally opposed to legalization, but I am strongly opposed to the ballot question and what the ballot question would represent for Massachusetts.”

The Governor of Colorado, John Hickenlooper, was originally opposed to legal recreational marijuana, but now seems to be changing his mind. “It’s beginning to look like it might work,” he said recently. The opposition groups’ objections fall into several categories. Lewis lists dangers to minors; commercialization; lack of expected revenue; the increased strength of today’s pot; problems with labeling; and providing consistent and predictable dosages, especially in edibles and oils.

Those favoring legalization argue that just the opposite is true. Borghesani calls attention to the proposed ͞Cannabis Control Commission͟ which would regulate all aspects of legal pot, including strength, purity, and THC consistency. Regulation would solve the problem of illegal street pot getting into the hands of minors. If we can regulate alcohol successfully, the argument goes, why not pot?

Michelle Lipinski, principal of North Shore Recovery High School in Beverly, points out that there is less stigma around pot today. With pot already perceived as low-risk, she argues, if it were legal, it would be that much more enticing to children.

But Borghesani counters by pointing out that dealers will sell illegal pot to anyone, while legal vendors would have to check ID at risk of losing their license. Recent studies show that teen use of marijuana appears unaffected by its legal status.

While opponents also see risk in legalizing recreational pot because of the growing opioid addiction epidemic, proponents see it differently, pointing to studies that show medical marijuana’s effectiveness in treating pain without the addiction or side effects of opioids.

If Massachusetts were to pass legal recreational marijuana, it would be the fifth state to do so.
“Remember, we’re not going to have to slide blind into this,” says Borghesani. ͞We’re going to be able to pick up best practices from other states. By the time November comes around, four states that are already in this process have learned from their mistakes, and we’re going to learn even more from their mistakes and their successes.”

The most recent polls show 45% opposing legalization, 43% in favor of legalization, and 11% undecided. Who that 11% listens to could make the difference.Will they follow the public trend toward legalization or adopt a more cautious ͞wait and see͟ approach? Massachusetts voters tend to be socially progressive and liberal-leaning. Whether that includes the right to toke up is the burning question.