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Can Marijuana Make it in Mass?

Arts & Culture | October 24, 2016

“I was a student activist in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s,” said Will Luzier, the campaign manager for the Committee to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol. “In the early 1970s, I was arrested for possession of marijuana. I was arrested with less than a quarter of an ounce which, at the time, was a Class A misdemeanor, which means I could’ve served up to a year in jail.” Fortunately for Luzier, who is White, his case was dismissed, and he later became an advocate for marijuana legalization.

Luzier’s early run-in with the law kindled his passion for marijuana law reform. The Committee to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol has led the charge on the ballot initiative to legalize marijuana in Massachusetts. If Question 4 on the ballot in Massachusetts’ state election passes this November, then Massachusetts would join Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, and the District of Columbia in ending marijuana prohibition.

Over the past few years, an ideological divide has appeared to be widening between marijuana legalization advocates and state legislators in Massachusetts as the impending November ballot approaches. The state legislature and marijuana advocates have outlined specific challenges of marijuana reform regarding issues including funding, youth use, black market involvement, and retail implementation.

Many members of the Senate are wary of legalization, including Senate President Stan Rosenberg. He explained that the field in Colorado and Washington is “undeveloped,” referring to the absence of good data on the effect of legalization on the black market and on youth use. “It’s a challenge to get 200 legislators to coalesce around one idea,” said Zach Crowley, the Chief of Staff in the office of Senator Jason Lewis, the state senator who headed the Special Senate Committee on Marijuana.

Both Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh have come out in opposition to the legalization of marijuana. “I’ve made it very clear that I am going to vote against the legalization of recreational marijuana questions,” Baker said last November. Walsh has also officially stated that he will campaign against the ballot question. Although Senator Elizabeth Warren has expressed support for legalization—saying that we can learn from the states that have already done it— the sentiment in the state government is largely that it is premature to legalize marijuana now because the consequences are not fully realized.

However, the skepticism of the state government comes in contrast to the stance of the general Massachusetts populace: according to a 2016 Western New England University poll, 57 percent of Massachusetts voters support legalizing marijuana.

The initiative proposed by the Committee to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol focuses on five core aspects of legalization: adult possession, limited home growing, regulation and oversight, local control, and taxation.

The law would allow adults 21 and older to possess up to an ounce on one’s person and a maximum of 10 ounces in an “enclosed, locked space within their residences,” according to the Committee’s website. Possession of any amount over two ounces is subject to existing penalties under the 2008 decriminalization provisions. Meanwhile, adults 21 and older would be able to grow a limited number of marijuana plants within their residence, and the initiative would give property owners and landlords the jurisdiction to prohibit marijuana cultivation on their property.

Regulation would be enforced by the Cannabis Control Commission, implemented by the state treasurer’s office, which would be responsible for regulating “the sale, manufacture, cultivation, and testing of marijuana and marijuana products,” said Luzier. The Cannabis Control Commission would also control licensing of marijuana retail stores, which would be analogous to alcohol licensing with the exception that a conviction of a marijuana offense would not stop someone from getting a retail license. Cities and towns in Massachusetts would “have the authority to impose limits on where and when marijuana businesses are allowed to operate,” according to the Committee to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol’s website. The total tax on retail marijuana would be 12 percent, divided between a state excise tax to fund the implementation of cannabis regulation, a tax to fund local municipalities, and a state sales tax.

The Special Senate Committee on Marijuana conducted a five-day research trip to Colorado in January 2016, with the goal of identifying the policy implications of legalizing marijuana. Zach Crowley aided Senator Lewis and eight other senators in observing the functioning of retail cannabis in Colorado: “It’s a little bit more complicated than the legalization of the marijuana [the senators] had in their heads,” said Crowley. “These are largely middle-aged legislators remembering their high school days.” In particular, the senators were surprised at the high potency of retail marijuana, according to Crowley.

After talking with experts, meeting governmental administrators, and touring dispensaries, some members from the Special Committee left the trip feeling more uncertain about the future of the legislation in Massachusetts, according to Crowley. Their apprehensions are clearly expressed in their “objective review of marijuana policy,” listed in the front of the report. Their concerns include: the perception that marijuana is a safe substance, the black market and the inability of police officers to determine marijuana intoxication, and economic concerns that tax revenues would not fully cover regulation and enforcement, as well as anxieties over how legalization would affect youth.

According to Dr. Jordan Tishler, who operates InhaleMD, a medical marijuana practice in Cambridge, MA, marijuana “is remarkably safe,” regardless of potency. In his two years of prescribing eligible patients medical marijuana, Tishler “never saw anyone that was sick from cannabis use.” However, most studies on the health effects of marijuana are not conclusive as they have only observed use after 20 years, whereas similar tobacco studies show that most physical illnesses from smoking tobacco occur after 40 years of use. Smoking of any kind is known to be physically harmful to one’s respiratory system, stated Tishler.

Limiting kids’ access to marijuana is a concern for both the Senate and the Committee to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol. According to Luzier, the Cannabis Control Commission would address packaging, labelling, portioning requirements, and the issue of child-proof packaging for retail products. “Public education seems to be the most effective way of working with youth to encourage them to make good decisions,” said Crowley. “Just say no” is not a persuasive message—instead, informing kids on substance use and teaching “just not now” would be a more effective way of targeting this issue, said Crowley.

According to the Colorado Institute of Public Health, there is still a substantial black market in Colorado. This is a legitimate concern for law enforcement as they transition from “a posture of getting [marijuana] out of the streets to dealing with it as a legal product,” said Crowley.

The Cannabis Control Commission would be responsible for making sure “products are sold in retail outlets that create jobs, pay taxes, and drive down youth access and the black market,” said Luzier. The roughly 900,000 people that use marijuana in Massachusetts are purchasing marijuana that is “untested and could be tainted with anything,” and the issue of getting marijuana out of the black market and into retail stores is a public health issue, not a public safety issue, added Luzier.

The Senate is also concerned about law enforcement not being able to determine marijuana intoxication in DUI cases. The problem with current THC blood-level tests is that they cannot determine whether a person is currently intoxicated or whether they have used cannabis in some form in the past 30 to 90 days, according to Dr. Tishler. When marijuana was decriminalized in the state, the legislature did not specify a THC blood-level limit like Colorado and Washington have. Even if there were available roadside tests, there is no standard metric on which to base illegal intoxication. There are drug experts in the state police force who are trained to be able to determine intoxication by marijuana through a roadside sobriety test, but their judgment remains subjective.

The fate of marijuana lies in the will of Massachusetts voters on November 8. The Committee to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol will cease to exist after the election, regardless of the outcome of the voting.

“My biggest fear is that people will become complacent about this and they won’t be ready to vote in November in favor of ending marijuana prohibition,” said Luzier. “We need to keep this on the front burner so that people understand how important it is to end marijuana prohibition, to get rid of the black market, and to make sure that people are consuming safe and regulated products.”