BOSTON — Emboldened by victories in other states and recent polls showing widespread support, advocates of legalized marijuana are preparing to put the question to Massachusetts voters in 2016.
Supporters of legalization say they are drafting legislation to allow recreational pot cultivation and use, with a tax similar to those for alcohol and tobacco, for consideration in the legislative session that starts in January.
They'll also prepare a ballot question for the 2016 elections in case lawmakers fail to act.
“If the Legislature doesn’t do anything, we’ll go to the voters in 2016,” said Richard Evans, a Northampton attorney and chairman of a coalition that is pushing for legalization. “We want to give lawmakers the opportunity to enact it. Voters shouldn’t be making laws like this, lawmakers should. But when the lawmakers won’t, voters must.”
It seems unlikely that the Legislature will sign off, given the track record of previous efforts. A bill to allow adults to grow marijuana while establishing a tax on retail sales failed to gain much support in the current session.
Still, Evans said he believes public opinion on marijuana use is turning, citing an easing of state laws and the approval of recreational use in Colorado, Washington and more recently Oregon, Alaska and Washington, D.C.
Step by step
In 2008, Massachusetts voters decriminalized the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana, replacing jail time with a $100 fine. Four years later, voters approved the cultivation and use of medical marijuana. Both initiatives passed by more than 60 percent.
“It’s no longer a question of whether it will be legalized in the state, but when and how,” Evans said.
Opponents argue that recreational pot use should remain illegal, especially given the danger it poses to youth.
“It’s a public health disaster in the making,” said Jody Hensley, a member of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, one of several groups expected to fight the legalization effort.
Hensley and others opponents argue that a large-scale marijuana industry across the country could target teenagers, in the same way that tobacco companies have, creating even greater public health concerns.
Public health officials warn that despite its medicinal uses, marijuana creates a number of medical concerns.
“Physicians are always opposed to smoking, given the effects on human body,” said Dr. Richard Peters, president of the Massachusetts Medical Association. “But research also shows that there are harms associated with chronic use because it can worsen anxiety and depression and cause cognitive difficulties because of its effects on the brain.”
Despite those objections, a growing number of voters in Massachusetts have shown support for legalization in recent straw polls.
In the Nov. 4 elections, voters in several House of Representative districts – including several north of Boston – approved non-binding ballot questions asking if their representatives should vote in favor of legislation permitting the cultivation and regulation of marijuana as an agricultural product.
Voters in the district represented by Democrat Lori Ehrlich — which includes Marblehead, Swampscott and parts of Lynn — approved the measure by 57 percent. In the district representing Newburyport, Salisbury and Amesbury — whose representative remains undecided pending a recount — the question passed by 71 percent.
No vote on Cape Ann
The proposal was not on the ballot in either the House or Senate districts, which cover Cape Ann and are represented by Ann-Margaret Ferrante and Bruce Tarr, respectively.
But in Salem’s 7th Essex House district, which was won by Democrat and Salem police chief Paul Tucker, the non-binding measure passed with support from 61 percent of more than 13,000 voters who cast ballots.
Tucker, who takes office in January, said he supports medical marijuana but strongly opposes its recreational use.
“During my career in law enforcement, I’ve dealt with many of the issues related to illegal drugs, whether it be violent crimes or homicides,” he said. “So, given that, I’m opposed to legalization.”
Organizers of the polls showing support for legalization say they purposely targeted House districts with large numbers of independent and Republican voters. The polls passed by a wide margin in all six districts, according to state and local elections officials.
“We wanted to show that it isn’t just Democrats who favor legalization,” said Georgetown attorney Steven Epstein, a member of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
“The success of these questions prove Massachusetts voters get it; allowing adults to make their own choices but punishing those who provide marijuana to minors is the best way to keep marijuana from our teenagers,” he said.
In Colorado, marijuana is now taxed and regulated similar to alcohol and tobacco. the law gives the state and local governments authority to control and tax the sale of small amounts of marijuana to adults age 21 and older.
A law approved by voters in Washington, D.C., allows residents to possess up to two ounces of marijuana and grow up to six cannabis plants. Oregon’s law allows possession of up to eight ounces of marijuana and four plants.
Massachusetts is one of several states targeted by marijuana advocates for legalization efforts two years from now. Similar legislation and referendums are being prepared for ballots in Maine, Vermont, Rhode Island and California.
Opponents will have a ready ally in Governor-elect Charlie Baker, a Republican who takes office in January. Baker opposes legalization and has said he will advocate against it, despite admitting that he has smoked marijuana.
Opponents of legalization in Massachusetts said they expect to be outspent if the matter goes to voters in 2016.
In Colorado, supporters of a ballot question to legalize and tax marijuana four years ago spent nearly $2.3 million, compared to about $700,000 raised by opponents. The measure passed with 55 percent of vote.
“This isn’t a movement of the people, it’s an outside deal by a handful of pro-drug legalization groups based in Washington, D.C. and New York,” Hensley said. “I think when people catch onto that, they won’t be supportive.”
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org