By Steven R. Maher
Americans are constantly being told that their country is deeply divided and the main political parties cannot work together. Yet an impressive bi-partisan coalition of state officer holders and professional groups has assembled to oppose referendum Question 4, to legalize marijuana.
Among the elected officials opposing Question 4: Governor Charlie Baker (R), Boston Mayor Marty Walsh (D), Attorney General Maura Healey (D), and Speaker Robert DeLeo (D). A majority in both branches of the state legislature – 97 lawmakers and 22 senators – went on record in August 2016 as opposing Question 4.
The law enforcement and medical groups opposing the referendum question include all Massachusetts District Attorneys, the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, the Massachusetts Sheriffs Association, Massachusetts Medical Society, the Association of School Superintendents, the Association for Behavioral Healthcare, and the National Association of Mental Illness (Massachusetts Chapter).
“This law was written to benefit the commercial marijuana industry, will introduce an entirely new pot edibles market, and will harm our families and communities,” charges opponents on www.SafeAndHealthyMA.com, a website urging a no vote. This group claims the following about existing laws and what the new law would bring:
• “Massachusetts has already decriminalized marijuana possession and authorized medical marijuana. People are not being jailed for marijuana use, and have access to it for health reasons. This ballot question is about allowing the national marijuana industry to come into Massachusetts and market and sell marijuana products in our communities.
• “It [legalization] incorporates the laxest ‘home grow’ provision in the country, allowing individual households to grow up to 12 marijuana plants at a value in the tens of thousands of dollars. This provision will have a significant impact on public safety, and has led to the creation of an entirely new black market in Colorado.
• “It specifically authorizes marijuana edibles (products like candy bars and gummy bears), oils and concentrates.
•The new statute “specifically limits communities’ ability to restrict the locations and growth of pot shops. Two years into legalization, Colorado has more marijuana stores than Starbucks and McDonalds combined—and the numbers keep growing.
•”Today’s Marijuana is much more potent than it was even a generation ago. Marijuana for sale in Colorado averages 17% to 18% THC, which is several times more potent than was common in the 1980s.
• “Since becoming the first state to legalize, Colorado has also become the #1 state in the nation for teen marijuana use. Use by teens aged 12-17 jumped by over 12% in the two years since legalization, even as that rate declined nationally.
• “Commercial legalization has led to more fatal car crashes. In Washington, the number of fatal car crashes involving marijuana doubled in the one year since legalization.
• “The marijuana edibles market is dangerous for kids, and a huge part of the commercial industry’s profit model. Marijuana infused products such as candies, cookies, and ‘cannabis cola’ account for nearly 50% of the sales in Colorado, and that number is growing. These products are often indistinguishable from traditional products and attractive to children, placing them at significant risk of accidental use.”
Group favors legalization
The group favoring legalization, www.regulatemass.com, relies less on statistics to make their point. They make some questionable arguments, including the following:
• “[O]piate addiction is causing the real drug crisis in Massachusetts. And there’s a reasonable way to slow the epidemic down: legalizing and regulating marijuana. By avoiding opiates, reducing painful addiction, and protecting families, patients can use marijuana to prevent hitting rock bottom.
• “Marijuana cases cost taxpayers by clogging our legal system.
• “Marijuana arrests ruin lives. Too often young people and people of color can’t find a job or take care of their families because they have a petty arrest record for possessing marijuana.
• “Marijuana is here, no increased police presence is going to change that.
• Unnamed experts “say that taxing marijuana sales will create $100 million in new tax revenue for vital essential services in our communities. We can use the money to strengthen our schools — smaller classes, more books, and newer technology for our children.
• “People of color are 3x more likely to be arrested. Instead of keeping us safe, the “War on Drugs” has ruined the lives of countless people. In Massachusetts, people of color are three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession — a problem that has been getting worse, not better.”
The first quote above – that an acceptable way to treat heroin addicts is to get them stoned on marijuana – has to be the most ludicrous argument made by either side on Question 4.
Dollars and gateway drug
What would be the fiscal impact of legalizing cannabis?
Those favoring legalization claim the state would have tax windfall of $100 million if Question 4 passes. However, the “2016 Ballot Questions” guide sent out by the Secretary of State’s office stated: “A March 2016 report from the Special Select Committee on Marijuana concluded as follows: ‘Tax revenues and fees that would be generated from legal sales may fall short of even covering the full public and social costs (including regulation, enforcement, public health and safety, and substance abuse treatment.’)” This reminds one of the dispute over casino gambling, which Worcester wisely rejected because the human costs were thought to exceed the benefits to the community.
This leaves one final question: with an opioid crisis raging, should a narcotic substance seen by some as a gateway to hard core drug addiction be legalized? That question was answered in the daily by Spectrum Health Service President Charles J. Farris. “We know that not everybody who smokes marijuana is going to go out and become an addict,” Farris said. “But every addict we know that’s come in here started out by smoking marijuana. Who’s going to take the chance that they’re not going to be the one to go on to other things?”