Two of NY's Neighbors Are Poised to Legalize Marijuana in November

Chuck Grant displays his medical marijuana that he picked up from Massachusetts's first medical marijuana dispensary, in Salem. It is about 7 grams of marijuana that was in his bottle. He suffers from sleeplessness and arthritis.
Chuck Grant displays his medical marijuana that he picked up from Massachusetts's first medical marijuana dispensary, in Salem. It is about 7 grams of marijuana that was in his bottle. He suffers from sleeplessness and arthritis.
Boston Globe / Getty Images

This Election Day, Massachusetts and Maine might become the first states east of the Rockies to legalize the sale of marijuana.

"It’s time to get real about prohibition," says Richard Evans, a Northampton lawyer active in the Massachusetts legalization movement for more than forty years and chair of the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol. "It’s time for the industry to start paying its fair share of taxes, and it’s time to be honest about the difference between use and abuse."

It’s also time, Evans adds, to recognize that while prohibition has not worked to eliminate marijuana use, as "an instrument of oppression for minorities, it has worked shamefully well."

The Question 4 ballot initiative in the Bay State would license stores to sell up to one ounce to people 21 or older — probably beginning in 2018 — and let individuals grow six to twelve plants.

Supporters are cautiously optimistic. A survey of likely voters taken Sept. 7–10 for WBUR, Boston's NPR station, found respondents supporting Question 4 by a 50–45 percent margin. Voters sixty and older opposed it by 56–39 percent, but 65 percent of those under thirty were for it.

Conventional marijuana-movement wisdom is that support drips off before the election, so less than 60 percent is bad news. On the other hand, notes Allen St. Pierre, former head of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, the two previous Massachusetts marijuana initiatives, to decriminalize it in 2008 and legalize medical use in 2012, both had similar levels in the polls two months before the election — and they both won, receiving more than 60 percent of the vote.

In Maine, a poll conducted Sept. 15–20 for the Portland Press Herald found likely voters favoring Question 1, that state's legalization initiative, by a 53–38 percent margin. More than 60 percent of respondents said they’d tried pot at least once.

Similar measures are on the ballot in California, Arizona, and Nevada. While selling and growing marijuana are still felonies under federal law, the Obama administration has chosen not to make enforcing that a priority in Colorado and the other states that have voted to legalize it since 2012.

Several factors make Massachusetts more 420-friendly than other East Coast states. First, it and Maine are the only ones that can enact laws by popular vote. Second, notes St. Pierre, Massachusetts has long had a pot subculture, with large concentrations of students in the Boston and Northampton-Amherst areas. Most important, he adds, is that it has a long history of activism and a solid grassroots movement.

Mass CANN, the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition, has been organizing the annual Boston Freedom Rally, a pro-legalization protest and party on Boston Common, since the early 1990s, sometimes drawing more than 40,000 people. Between 2000 and 2014, the group put more than seventy "public policy questions" — nonbinding resolutions urging decriminalization, medical marijuana, or full legalization — on the ballot in legislative districts, "and never lost. Not one," says sociologist Keith Saunders, its former president.

Evans also sees a parallel with the end of alcohol Prohibition, when several states repealed their own laws against liquor before the nation did in 1933. In 1930, Massachusetts voted 64–36 percent to repeal its "little Volstead Act," ending state enforcement of the ban. The only areas that opposed repeal, he says, were Cape Cod and the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket — maritime communities that were key drop-off points on the lucrative sea routes known as "Rum Row" and the "Great Whiskey Way."

New York, which repealed its little Volstead law in 1923 and decriminalized pot in 1977, has been well behind the recent national trend toward ending marijuana prohibition. Despite leading the nation in petty pot busts under the harsh and racist policies of New York City mayors Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, the state has never had a strong legalization movement. Advocates had trouble getting even a limited and restrictive medical-marijuana bill through Albany in 2014, and geographical distance and cultural differences impede forming the statewide social networks needed to build a political movement.

If Massachusetts votes to legalize marijuana, the main effect on New York would likely be indirect political influence. "Every time another state moves down this road, there is more pressure for New York to do the same," says State Senator Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan), who has introduced a legalization bill in the last two legislative sessions, and plans to do it again next year. With Massachusetts right on the border and "always looked at as a progressive state for New York to emulate," she adds, it would have a bigger influence.

In New York, she says, the only route to legalization runs through Albany. Ballot initiatives have to be approved by the legislature and the governor in two separate sessions. "Public opinion and understanding of this issue has moved much more rapidly than that of elected officials," she says. Legislators are "behind the times and behind where our constituents want us to be."

Christopher Alexander, state policy coordinator on the issue for the Drug Policy Alliance, agrees. Massachusetts voting, yes, he says, would make it harder and harder for public officials to justify arresting people for something that’s legal in other states, to justify keeping a revenue-producing industry "locked down," and to dismiss marijuana legalization as a fringe issue.

The legislature’s Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic, and Asian Caucus voted earlier this year to make her legalization bill a priority, Krueger says. A beneficial side effect of ending prohibition, she adds, is that it would enable much more research on medical cannabis.

"Any step forward helps move public opinion," Assemblymember Richard Gottfried’s office told the Voice, but said he believed the Massachusetts vote "would not be an enormous factor in New York."

Another issue is interstate commerce: New Yorkers crossing the border to buy buds. That, says Keith Saunders, might cause "a short-term revitalization of Western Massachusetts." Deindustrialized Springfield is the closest big city in the state to New York City, a four-hour bus ride away. Albany-area residents might make the forty-mile trip to Pittsfield, a city of 45,000 now dominated by a sprawling complex of disused General Electric factories.

A flyer distributed by a pro-legalization group in Massachusetts
A flyer distributed by a pro-legalization group in Massachusetts

The Bay State’s leading elected officials have lined up against legalization. Governor Charlie Baker, Boston Mayor Martin Walsh, and State Attorney General Maura Healey announced their opposition in an op-ed in the Boston Globe in March. They made the traditional prohibitionist claims that it will increase teenage drug use, that today’s weed is up to seven times as potent as it was in the 1970s, and that marijuana leads to harder drugs. With the state being ravaged by heroin and prescription opioids, they concluded, "we should not be expanding access to a drug that will further drain our health and safety resources."

They also claim that "edibles," marijuana-infused food products, endanger children. "The target is children. The target is not adults. It’s very similar to candy bars and the names are similar, so I get concerned about the devastation that edibles can do," Walsh, a recovering alcoholic, told Boston’s WBZ-TV Sept. 17.

That is "the most vile form of scare tactics" and "a calculated mix of falsehoods, junk science, and alarmist rhetoric," responds Jim Borghesani, lead spokesperson for the Yes on 4 campaign. There won’t be ganja gummy bears, he says: The initiative expressly forbids marketing "designed to appeal to children," and it also ordains "special packaging requirements" to protect them against ingesting cannabis. Colorado required edibles to be put in child-resistant packaging in 2014 after a few dozen incidents of children eating them.

Legalization supporters contend that marijuana might actually help reduce opioid abuse, by giving people a less harmful alternative drug for physical and emotional pain. They cite a 2014 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which found that states that had legalized medical marijuana had a lower death rate from overdoses of prescription opioids and heroin. "Although the exact mechanism is unclear, our results suggest a link," it said.

Opponents argue that legalization is not necessary because Massachusetts has already decriminalized possession and authorized medical marijuana. "People are not being jailed for marijuana use, and have access to it for health reasons,” the Campaign for a Safe and Healthy Massachusetts, the umbrella anti-legalization group, says on its website. Therefore, it avers, the only reason for legalization is profit.

"Oppose the creation of a billion-dollar marijuana industry," the group urges. "Two years into legalization, Colorado has more marijuana stores than Starbucks and McDonalds combined — and the numbers keep growing."

There already is a thriving market in marijuana, Borghesani replies. "We’ll be taking commerce out of the hands of criminals and adding safety to the market."

Massachusetts has the lowest rate of marijuana-possession arrests in the nation. Since the 2008 decriminalization law, it has averaged less than 1,400 a year, making it one of the few states where most pot busts are for sales. (The four boroughs outside Manhattan, which have roughly the same population as Massachusetts, had 20,900 possession arrests in 2014.) But the racial disparities have continued: Black people in Massachusetts are still more than three times as likely to be popped for possession, according to figures analyzed by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Under Question 4, a state commission like the one that regulates alcohol would oversee "a tightly controlled system of licensed retail stores, cultivation facilities, manufacturing facilities, and testing facilities." Taxes would be 10 to 12 percent: a 3.75 percent excise tax, the state’s 6.25 percent sales tax, and local taxes of up to 2 percent. A retail license would cost $15,000, and current medical-marijuana facilities would have a monopoly on cultivation for the first year. Local governments could limit the number of reefer retailers to 20 percent of the number of stores selling alcoholic beverages, but couldn’t go lower than that without a referendum.

Still, the details of regulation and the requirements for marijuana businesses are a major source of controversy within the legalization movement. Terry Franklin, a longtime activist from Amherst, says he is "very disturbed" by encroaching "crony capitalism." Last year, Ohio voters rejected a legalization initiative by nearly a 2–1 margin. The measure would have allowed only ten cultivation facilities in the state — all to be owned by the initiative’s funders.

"I’m a little disappointed [the law] isn’t better," Franklin says, "but it’s pretty darn good." But, he cautions, "if it passes, the fight isn’t over." He suspects the state legislature "is going to try to roll everything back as much as they can."

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