Come November, Massachusetts could become the fifth state to legalize recreational marijuana. But a growing group of opponents – including some of the highest elected state officials – intend to make sure that doesn’t happen.
The Regulation and Taxation of Marijuana Act likely will go before voters this fall — proponents are gathering the 10,792 additional signatures needed to get it on the ballot — and if passed, it would legalize the commercial sale, taxation, recreational use and growing of marijuana in the state.
The act would allow those 21 years and older to possess up to 1 ounce of marijuana outside their homes and up to 10 ounces within an “enclosed, locked space” within their residences. It would also allow up to 12 homegrown plants per residence.
The Campaign for a Safe and Healthy Massachusetts formally opposes the initiative and says the commercialization of the marijuana industry in Massachusetts would be dangerous for kids and only benefit those who seek to profit from full legalization.
“This new proposed law is written by and for the commercial marijuana industry, not the people of Massachusetts,” reads the campaign’s website. “As the industry profits, taxpayers will be left to foot the bill for the increased costs in health care and public safety.”
The driving force supporting the initiative has been the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, which says full legalization will deal a significant blow to the marijuana black market, save money on law enforcement and punishment for marijuana crimes and reduce direct access to the drug for those under 21.
Joining the opposition are some of the highest-ranking members of Massachusetts’ government, including Gov. Charlie Baker, Democratic House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh.
“We will join healthcare professionals, law enforcement, educators and family advocates to educate the public about the risks associated with this dangerous proposal and the serious adverse consequences facing states who have adopted similar laws,” Baker said in a recent statement.
Leading proponents see the legalization issue differently.
“The thinking behind this is concluding that 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.”
Polling has shown voters are split on the issue. Most recently, in early May, a Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll of 500 people showed 45 percent opposed legislation, 43 percent supported it, and another 11 percent remained undecided. That is the first widespread poll in which the majority has opposed legalization.
State Sen. Jason Lewis, D-Winchester, chairman of the Special Senate Committee on Marijuana, led a group of fellow senators to Colorado and interviewed 75 experts over the course of last year to research the possible consequences of marijuana legalization and commercialization.
The committee released its 118-page report in March, and the results did not support the ballot initiative.
“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,” Lewis said.
Opponents, like Lewis, argue voters should be aware that legalizing marijuana through this initiative means a full-scale commercialization of the drug in Massachusetts as well.
Lewis likened the possible consequences of advertising and exposure to the younger generations as a road that many states have been down before with the tobacco industry.
“And [the commercialized marijuana industry] will be an industry that will be, as we’ve seen in Colorado and elsewhere, highly motivated to increase their sales and profits by targeting young people,” Lewis said.
One of the opposition’s main concerns about legal sale of marijuana is that the product itself has changed since the 1960s and 1970s, when the average THC content of a marijuana cigarette, or joint, was between 2 percent to 3 percent. Today, according to Lewis, the average THC content of weed in Colorado is 18 percent, and hash oil extracts (also known as “dabs”) may go as high as 90 percent potency.
“It’s just a very different drug,” Lewis said.
Lewis also argued that, since the marijuana industry is still so new, there are still many problems in Colorado regarding the labeling, packaging, dosage and delivery systems of modern-day marijuana.
“Today, most people don’t even smoke marijuana,” said Lewis. “They vape it, they dab it, they eat food and drink beverages infused with THC, and that can lead to accidental consumption by kids who mistake it for products without THC, and it can also very often lead to overconsumption and misuse by adults, because it’s very hard to understand what the dosage is.”
Borghesani disagrees. He points out the ballot initiative calls for the creation of a “Cannabis Control Commission,” which he said would enact strict regulations regarding those issues.
“We specifically charge the Cannabis Control Commission to promulgate labeling and portion control and packaging regulations. We anticipate they will be the most stringent regulations in the nation,” Borghesani said. “We specifically say there will be no marketing towards children whatsoever.”
However, concerns about regulation are also paramount to the opposition’s stance. How will communities actually enforce laws to prevent people from driving while high, for example, or make sure people don’t sell their homegrown marijuana for profit in other states on the black market? They also claim the initiative specifically limits local control over the amount of pot shops that could open.
“In Colorado there are now more pot shops than Starbucks and McDonalds combined,” Lewis said.
And not all legalization supporters are on board with the Regulation and Taxation of Marijuana Act. Georgetown attorney Steve Epstein, who helped drive the effort for a different legalization bill, says he won’t support the RTMA because it would create a new state commission to oversee and regulate marijuana as well as impose a new marijuana tax.
Epstein’s pro-legalization group, Bay State Repeal, has been at the forefront of the push to legalize marijuana in Massachusetts for years. But his group’s proposal would use existing regulations regarding sales — like with cigarettes, alcohol and food.
“I do not support the creation of a new bureaucracy,” Epstein said. “There’s already decent regulation in place for food, restaurants, etc., and it’s working quite well. I’m also concerned that they do not have in their law provisions for punishing those who provide it for children.”
Another pillar in the opposition argument revolves around the fear that more teens and young adults will be able to access and use marijuana, which a growing body of scientific research is concluding has significantly negative physical and mental effects on their developing brains.
“The culture is different than it was 15 years ago,” said Michelle Lipinski, principal of North Shore Recovery High School in Beverly. “The openness about weed is pervasive. The perception of risk is so low.”
Lipinski has over 24 years in the education field, and started North Shore Recovery High 10 years ago out of her desire to help kids struggling with drug addiction. Although she is not morally or vehemently opposed to the legalization of marijuana, she has legitimate concerns about the consequences it may have for at-risk youth, many of whom start using marijuana in their early teens.
“It makes them numb,” she said about why some kids use marijuana habitually. “And that feels so good that they keep wanting to be numb and so they become dependent on it. It may not be a physical dependence, but it’s a dependence where they can’t feel normal without it.”
Lipinski said she doesn’t support the ballot initiative, because there is not yet enough effective preventative education established when it comes to marijuana abuse, and that in her experience, the path to worse drugs for some children definitely begins with marijuana.
“For me it’s all about the data,” she said. “If you can show me that this can be legalized and it’s going to stay out of the hands of children who are going to end up getting into much riskier behavior because of this drug, then that’s fine.”
Borghesani, however, believes kids are at far greater risk from the system they currently live in.
“The more dangerous market is the one that exists now where sales are in the hands of dealers who don’t ask for IDs and depend on dealing to people of all ages and, most importantly to them, people of young age,” he said. “It will be very different when it’s a legitimate business that will lose its license if they do sell to an underage person.”
Just the wrong time?
Lewis, Lipinski and Danvers Police Chief Patrick Ambrose all agree on one point about the ballot initiative — it’s simply the wrong time.
“I think we’re seeing an ongoing epidemic with heroin going on in all of our communities,” Ambrose said, adding he believes marijuana is clearly one of the “gateway” drugs that can lead to opioid abuse.
“Right now we’re in the middle of the largest opiate crisis that has ever been,” Lipinski said. “Why add another drug? Why right now? Can we just wait a couple years and see what happens?”
The call to “wait and see” — referring to waiting for more consequences and data to come out of places like Colorado — is another of the rallying cries from folks in opposition to legalizing marijuana in November.
“I think if instead we continue to learn from the experience of states like Colorado and Washington, we will be able to make much better policy decisions down the road,” Lewis said.
Borghesani, again, didn’t mince words in his rebuttal to their point.
“There’s never a wrong time to correct a miserably failed public policy,” he said. “Remember, we’re not going to have to slide blind into this. 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.”
Lewis argued there are better alternatives to allowing a profit-driven, commercialized industry to set up shop in Massachusetts, such as state-operated facilities that are forbidden from advertising.
“There’s a way we could do this that I think would balance the fact that there are people who want to consume marijuana in the state — that is undeniable,” he said. “But a balance with public health concerns and with public safety concerns. And that’s not what this ballot question does.”
Despite all the back-and-forth, the Massachusetts voters likely will have the final say.