Ballot Question #4 in Massachusetts

Question #4 would legalize recreational marijuana in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. In particular, it would permit the possession, use, distribution, and cultivation of marijuana in limited amounts by persons’ age 21 and older and would remove criminal penalties for such activities. It would provide for the regulation of commerce in marijuana, marijuana accessories, and marijuana products and for the taxation of proceeds from sales of these items.[1] The measure would also create a Cannabis Control Commission which would generally administer the law governing marijuana use and distribution, promulgate regulations, and be responsible for the licensing of marijuana commercial establishments.[2] It would also authorize cities and towns to adopt reasonable restrictions on the time, place, and manner of operating marijuana businesses and to limit the number of marijuana establishments in their communities.[3] Finally, the proceeds of retail sales of marijuana and marijuana products would be subject to the state sales tax and an additional excise tax of 3.75%. A city or town could impose a separate tax of up to 2% at “local option.”[4]

I’m planning on voting YES on Question #4.

Whenever we declare war on an abstract concept (or inanimate objects), it usually doesn’t end well. Terrorism. Drugs. And so forth. The “war on drugs” in the United States was declared by Richard Nixon back in 1971. And how has that been going?

For a clear counterpoint to the war on drugs, let’s look at the country of Portugal. Back in 2001 Portugal decriminalized drug use throughout the entire nation. While the use of most drugs still could be sanctioned with fines and related civil penalties, the focus in Portugal shifted from drug enforcement to the treatment of addicts. Drug use did not rise dramatically, but certain of the collateral consequences of illegal drug use – like HIV infections through needle sharing – decreased dramatically. That was 15 years ago, and the country of Portugal did not fall apart.

What is being proposed here, with the legalization of the recreational use of marijuana, is much more modest, and in keeping with proposals which have already legalized pot in Washington State, Oregon, Colorado and Alaska. There are ten other states with a legalization questions on the ballot, including California. All of them are expected to pass.

Opponents of legalized pot will go back to the “reefer madness” arguments that marijuana is a “gateway drug.” Well, so is alcohol. And so are prescription drugs. In fact, the current opioids epidemic is primarily being fueled by the oversubscription of prescription drugs. Not by marijuana use. Aside from the “gateway drug” argument, opponents of legalization like to fall back on the notion that it will increase traffic accidents because of intoxicated drivers. However, the experience of other states belies that notion.

In fact, the evidence suggests that nothing much will change when marijuana is legalized. At least, that was the finding of a study by the libertarian Cato Institute, authored by Harvard Professor Jeffrey Miron, along with researchers Angela Dills and Sietse Goffard. Legalization, they found, did not much change the use or frequency of use of marijuana, it did not change the frequency of use of other drugs, and it did not lead to increased traffic accidents. The only noteworthy reportable change was an increase in tax revenue.

There have also been complaints that this initiative will create too much of a marijuana “bureaucracy,” and that the taxes raised will not cover the cost of regulating the industry. It has also been suggested the “big marijuana” – now there is a name that you have to love – was responsible for writing this legislation. I would have more sympathy for that position if the Massachusetts legislature had not failed to pass legislation that was already on the table and in process this past session, and which could have pre-empted the ballot question altogether. As it is, what people are voting in favor of is the principle of legalization, not the details of administration. There is nothing in the initiative which prevents the legislature from tweaking the law and harmonizing it with existing governmental systems in the Commonwealth.

Finally, the Catholic Church and Sheldon Adelson are both opposed to the measure and have been pouring large financial contributions into the opposition to Question #4. If that alone is not reason to vote for the measure, I don’t know what is.

Prohibition – as we learned in the United States with the war on alcohol – is never a good thing. It’s much better to regulate and tax a product like marijuana, and focus on helping those people who cannot use a drug like that recreationally and responsibly. For the rest of us, prohibition is not a useful tactic.

[1] Specifically, the initiative law would authorize persons at least 21 years old to possess up to one ounce of marijuana outside of their residences; possess up to ten ounces of marijuana inside their residences; grow up to six marijuana plants in their residences; give one ounce or less of marijuana to a person at least 21 years old without payment; possess, produce or transfer hemp; or make or transfer items related to marijuana use, storage, cultivation, or processing.

[2] Marijuana-related activities authorized under this proposed law could not be a basis for adverse orders in child welfare cases absent clear and convincing evidence that such activities had created an unreasonable danger to the safety of a minor child. The proposed law would not affect existing law regarding medical marijuana treatment centers or the operation of motor vehicles while under the influence. It would permit property owners to prohibit the use, sale, or production of marijuana on their premises (with an exception that landlords cannot prohibit consumption by tenants of marijuana by means other than by smoking); and would permit employers to prohibit the consumption of marijuana by employees in the workplace. State and local governments could continue to restrict uses in public buildings or at or near schools. Supplying marijuana to persons under age 21 would be unlawful.

[3] A city or town could hold a local vote to determine whether to permit the selling of marijuana and marijuana products for consumption on the premises at commercial establishments.

[4] Revenue received from the additional state excise tax or from license application fees and civil penalties for violations of this law would be deposited in a Marijuana Regulation Fund and would be used subject to appropriation for administration of the proposed law.

About a1skeptic

A disturbed citizen and skeptic. I should stop reading the newspaper. Or watching TV. I should turn off NPR and disconnect from the Internet. We’d all be better off.
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