Picture this. You’re driving your little girl to the neighborhood toy store.
But this neighborhood is different. Instead of pharmacies, florists and grocery stores lining streets, there’s a dozen marijuana dispensaries. Giant signs with cartoon pot leaves loom over young pedestrians in clouds of smoke.
Your daughter is peering through the pot shop window with THC laden macaroons sitting out on display, like any local bakery. You grab her as sirens blast through the streets, presumably rounding up the bodies of another doped driving accident.
Then your son pops out of the store munching on some marijuana edibles with a big bag of “supplies.”
On Tuesday, November 8th, America will elect its next president. The people of Massachusetts will also vote on issues ranging from increased slot parlors and charter schools to animal confinement. But one of the most intriguing ballot questions is #4, which would legalize recreational marijuana in the Commonwealth.
Detecting and enforcing penalties for “high driving,” are a legitimate concern and pose a problem for both law enforcement and the public.
But before we get into the debate on the issue, let’s look at the measure itself.
According to the “Information for Voters” booklet published by Secretary of the Commonwealth, William Francis Galvin, question 4(Q#4) would legalize the possession, distribution, use, and cultivation of marijuana. This would be in limited amounts and only for those 21 or older. The law would also remove previous penalties for these activities.
Those 21 and older would be allowed to possess up to one ounce of marijuana outside of their residence and ten ounces within.
The measure would also establish a “Cannabis Control Commission” which would be appointed by the Treasurer. This would be in addition to a “Cannabis Advisory Board” consisting of 15 Governor-appointed members.
An excise tax of 3.75% would be levied on the retail sales of all marijuana products, in addition to the state sales tax. Cities and towns can also tack on an additional tax up to 2%, and that’s not the only say that individual communities have.
Individual cities and towns can hold referendums, under the law, to decide whether they would allow commercial sales in their communities. This, along with “reasonable” restrictions involving time, place, and number of establishments are all authorized by the law to the cities and towns.
Property owners could ban the use, production, and sale on their premises. Employers would be permitted to ban the use of marijuana in the workplace, and state and local governments can form restrictions involving proximity of public schools and buildings.
Landlords however, could not prohibit the use of marijuana by its tenants, except for smoking bans. Also, if enacted, the then legal activities could not be used against a person in child welfare case, unless “such activities had created an unreasonable danger to the safety of a minor child.”
Those numbers will come as a surprise to some, considering the widespread opposition of the bill from lawmakers including Governor Charlie Baker and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh.
“Our state has already decriminalized the drug for personal use, and we’ve made it legally available for medical use,” Governor Baker said in a Boston Globe Op-Ed. “The question before us now is whether marijuana should be fully legal and widely available for commercial sale. We think the answer is ‘no.’”
Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, a recovering alcoholic, also opposes the measure.
“This is the wrong way to go for Massachusetts,” said Walsh in a Herald Radio interview. “I don’t understand the need for another legal drug, if you will, to clog up the problems we already have with addiction and things like that.”
“Initially you’re looking at 48 pot shops,” Walsh said. “They’ll be able to be placed in every neighborhood in the city.” Expressing concern, Walsh said that there was never a bill he viewed with as much opposition as Q#4.
That being said, there were 8,686 licensed bars and restaurants and 2,800 package stores serving and selling alcohol in Massachusetts, according to the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commissions 2015 annual report.
The “Information for Voters” booklet also says in the “against” arguments that the bill “ignores the deadly opioid epidemic and impact legalized pot will have on overall drug use.”
Rep. Denise Garlick(D) of Needham, also a registered nurse, saw a similar conflict in the bill.
“I don’t support recreational use of drugs,” Garlick, who voted in favor of the Medical Marijuana initiative of 2012, said at an event. “I understand the importance of using OxyContin for severe pain. I don’t support recreational Oxycontin.”
The highly addictive painkiller Oxycontin, is regarded by many as a major contributor to the current opioid epidemic. Marijuana has had no overdose deaths reported, according to the most recent DEA drug fact sheet.
The Archdiocese of Boston is also opposing the ballot initiative, and has pledged $850,000 to the campaign.
“We are particularly concerned about the serious risks to youth that would follow the enactment of this proposed law,” said Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley, in his blog. “We hold our responsibility for the safety and well-being of children and families as paramount in all that we do.”
Concerns for children and teens seem to be at the forefront of the opposition.
Colorado who legalized recreational marijuana in 2012, have released data showing little change in the usage of marijuana in teens. In 2015, 21% of Colorado teens surveyed used marijuana in the past 30 days, down from 25% in 2009.
“The survey shows marijuana use has not increased since legalization, with four of five high school students continuing to say they don’t use marijuana, even occasionally,” the Colorado health department said in a news release. National numbers also show significant ease in obtaining the drug, despite legality.
In a University of Michigan study, 80% of 12th graders nationally viewed marijuana as either “fairly easy” or “very easy” to obtain, in 2015. Colorado, also requires strict “child resistant” packaging on all edible marijuana products sold to consumers. The view of Colorado’s success in legalizing marijuana is divided.
“There are a certain number of folks, like myself,” said Colorado House Speaker Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, “who were pretty reticent about it to begin with, but the sky didn’t fall. Everything seems to be working pretty well.”
Governor John Hickenlooper is still not convinced, and warned other state legislatures during an interview on CBS’ 60 Minutes.
“I urge caution,” Hickenlooper said. “My recommendation has been to go slowly and probably wait a couple years and let’s make sure we get some good vertical studies.” In relation to increased teen usage and abuse while driving he said, “we don’t see it yet…but we don’t have enough data.”
Here in Massachusetts, lawmakers have turned their attention to the framework of the bill to form their opposition. Treasurer Deborah Goldberg, who opposes the bill, is concerned with the amount of time provided for the transition. The ballot initiative would allow retail marijuana sales to commence in January 2018.
“There are enormous number of things to deal with, with no startup costs to even get the commission going, so the timeline is really tight,” Goldberg said.
The Boston Globe’s endorsement of a Yes vote on Q#4, suggested that Massachusetts lawmaker could manage the challenge.
“Respectfully,” the Globe Editorial said, “today’s Legislature is by and large the same group of lawmakers who somehow found the time to write legislation for the horse-racing industry. They can survive the inconvenience that their constituents may impose on their calendars.
Cardinal O’Malley, Governor Baker, Mayor Walsh, and lawmakers are not alone in fight, however. They are accompanied in opposition by the campaign donations of casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson.
Adelson of Las Vegas has contributed $3.5 million to fight marijuana legalization, nationwide, and nearly 2/3 of all Massachusetts spending. Adelson lost a son to drug addiction in 2005. With his wife, he opened the Miriam & Sheldon G. Adelson Clinic for Drug Abuse, Treatment & Research in Tel Aviv, and another by the same name in Las Vegas.
Some view his involvement as advocating for a cause he passionately cares about. Others, such as Mason Tvert, director of communications for the pro-legalization group, Marijuana Policy Project, are more skeptical.
“If you like drinking alcohol and playing blackjack at the casino, Mr. Adelson wants you to be his guest,” Tvert said via email. “If you prefer to consume marijuana while playing video games in the privacy of your home, Mr. Adelson wants you to be in jail.”
Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska have all legalized recreational marijuana. Each state facing new challenges, built upon by their successors. November 8th the people of Massachusetts, will decide if their ready to take the plunge as well.
Despite lawmakers, law enforcement, casino billionaires, and clergymen rallying against Q#4, the latest polls suggest the measure is poised to pass. If it does, marijuana will be legal in the Bay State on December 15th. Massachusetts’ Q#4 is a hurdle faced as momentum seems to be building across the country. Is it too much too soon? Massachusetts voters, not the lawmakers or billionaire bankrollers will decide on November 8th.