Smoking out support for legalizing pot
Former assistant AG leads the effort
THERE IS A MOVEMENT AFOOT to light up the smoking lamp in Massachusetts, if you will. A Washington, DC-based group with wired-in local connections is on the verge of placing a ballot question before voters to legalize the recreational use of marijuana, the latest step in bringing pot-smoking into the mainstream.
Will Luzier is a former assistant attorney general in the criminal bureau and the one-time head of the state’s Interagency Council on Substance Abuse. It’s not the profile you’d expect of someone touting the use of marijuana as being far more benign than alcohol. But Luzier, who is the campaign manager for the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, has a personal perspective: In 1970, before he started working for the state, he was busted for carrying a small amount of marijuana in New York. The arrest was tossed out and his record expunged, but Luzier says that is one of the motivating factors in his push to legalize the drug, which he says has none of the harmful effects of alcohol.
Under the proposed law, people 21 and older could legally purchase and carry up to an ounce of marijuana outside their home and use it in designated areas. If someone has more than an ounce but less than two, they could be fined $100, similar to the current civil penalty for carrying under an ounce, and the excess of one ounce will be taken away. Someone could have up to 10 ounces in their home, though nine ounces are supposed to be kept under lock and key.
Luzier’s group collected more than 105,000 signatures in the first phase of the initiative process and was one of two organizations seeking to place questions on the ballot to legalize marijuana use. The other group failed to gather enough signatures, leaving Luzier’s organization as the sole engine behind the effort.
The Bay State is one of 23 states that have legalized medical marijuana use and is one of several other states, including Maine, that have decriminalized possession of small amounts. Both changes to Massachusetts law came through the ballot. Under the initiative petition process, the Legislature has until May 3 to act on the proposal from Luzier’s group and vote it into law. If it fails to act, the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol must head back to the streets to collect nearly 11,000 more signatures to place it on the ballot in November.
If the measure goes to the ballot and passes, Massachusetts would follow the lead of Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska, which have all legalized marijuana use and sale via statewide vote.
Luzier sat down with CommonWealth to talk about the ballot question, his group, and the path to legalization. This is an edited transcript of the discussion.
COMMONWEALTH: You used to be in the AG’s office, right?
WILL LUZIER: I was in the criminal bureau about four years, maybe a little longer than that. I was in the Appellate Division of the criminal bureau. And then I was a supervisor in the Employment Security Division. All during that time I was an assistant AG. I started with [former attorney general Frank] Bellotti in 1979 and I served two terms under Frank Bellotti and one term under Jim Shannon for a total of 12 years.
CW: Is that a kind of a leap to go from a prosecutor to an advocate for marijuana?
CW: Did you tell the AG’s office about that arrest?
LUZIER: When they asked me, I did.
CW: When did they ask you?
LUZIER: First of all, the arrest was expunged, so I didn’t have to tell them. But Frank Bellotti never asked. Jim Shannon, when he came in, he had background checks done on everybody who worked in the office at that point. At that point, I sat down with the Criminal Investigation Bureau with the State Police and told them about it, not that I had to, but I thought they were going to find out about that anyway.
CW: How would they find out if the record was expunged?
LUZIER: My understanding is there is still a record somewhere in the FBI files, even if it’s expunged in New York State. But even before that I was a proponent of ending marijuana prohibition. That was a not an uncommon position back in the early 70s.
CW: A number of Massachusetts police chiefs and prosecutors and other opponents said the earlier ballot questions for decriminalization and then for medical marijuana were just a Trojan horse for legalization, that this is just a doorway to legalization. Some of the proponents were saying, no, this [decriminalization] is just a move to make it a misdemeanor or a civil offense and get it out of the criminal justice system. Was it really a gateway to this legalization?
LUZIER: I can’t say because I wasn’t involved back then. There has been a progression in many states, for decriminalization first, and then medical authorization, and then a move to, we don’t like to call that legalized because, for instance, unlicensed possession of over two ounces will still be a criminal offense, so we like to call it authorized adult use of marijuana.
CW: How is that different from decriminalization?
LUZIER: Decriminalization makes possession a civil offense punishable by a fine of up to $100.
CW: What kind of financial backing do you have? Are you guys selling dope on the side to finance this?
LUZIER: [Laughs] There are a number of folks who were associated with the industry. Our largest donor of $150,000, Susan Ruiz, is a philanthropist who is just interested in social justice.
CW: Is that how you view the initiative, as a question of social justice?
LUZIER: I have several perspectives on it, but I see it mostly as a criminal justice bill. I don’t think that it is appropriate to be punishing people for using something that’s less harmful than alcohol.
CW: What do you mean by less harmful?
LUZIER: It doesn’t precipitate violent behavior, doesn’t have the same health problems as alcohol. Here’s an example: The annual health-related cost of alcohol abuse is $165 per user compared to $20 for marijuana. There are 30,000 deaths per year attributed to the health effects of alcohol; marijuana has zero. Alcohol plays a causal role in 25-30 percent of violent crimes in the US, where studies find no link between marijuana and violent behavior.
CW: Could that be because marijuana is not legal and its use is not as widespread?
LUZIER: You could say that but high school seniors, over several surveys, 80 percent have said that marijuana is easy or fairly easy to get. There’s a lot of folks out using it. I don’t know how you get back and forth to work but I go through the [Boston] Common and every time I walk through the Common, I can smell marijuana. Prohibition has been an abject failure and it doesn’t make any sense to me. We need to have laws that are related to the harms of the substances that are regulated. I saw a cartoon recently: A cop standing by the car, windows rolled down, smoke is pouring out, and the cop says to the kid, “You know how slow you were driving?”
CW: You get the caricature of the stoner, you know, “Uh, hey, dude,” but the bottom line is you make it legal and, like alcohol, you’re putting impaired drivers on the road or more impaired drivers on the road. Is that a concern?
LUZIER: I think the impaired drivers are on the road now. John Hickenlooper, the governor of Colorado, said that he was an opponent of their initiative, which is not too much different from ours here. He doesn’t think people have been smoking any more than before legalization. That’s just his opinion.
CW: That seems to be a recurring theme: opinions and anecdotal evidence and caricatures. Is that going to make it difficult for you when you have to convince somebody who is data-focused? You’re not giving them hard data.
LUZIER: There hasn’t been enough time for the states that have been legal – Colorado just passed the second-year mark, Washington is a year and a half, Oregon is even less – there isn’t enough data out there to come up with hard evidence. But the other problem is the federal government has restricted research around marijuana since Richard Nixon classified [marijuana] as a Schedule 1 drug. For the most part, the only people that are allowed to do research on marijuana are the people that buy it from a DEA-sponsored grower. They allow people to do research on it but mostly they’re only allowed to determine its harmful effects.
CW: When you talk about harmful effects, right now you’re going to be bumping up against the Massachusetts chiefs of police, the county prosecutors, people that you used to work with who are saying this is a gateway drug….
LUZIER: I think there is significant evidence to show it is not a gateway drug. There was a  White House study that shows it is not a gateway drug. There’s a more recent study in 2015 that says it’s not a gateway drug.
CW: What is that based on?
LUZIER: Looking at people over time who are smoking marijuana and have not graduated to other substances.
CW: Well, from personal experience, when I was much younger, I smoked marijuana and I graduated to harder drugs. I couldn’t tell you if one is a cause or effect, but I could tell you before I did hard drugs, I did marijuana.
LUZIER: Right, and what I would say to that is, for folks who have substance-abuse problem disorders – and I’m not suggesting you do – that it’s not a gateway drug. The way it is a gateway drug is if you force people to go to dealers that have other drugs besides marijuana and the profit margin is greater on those things. If we take that market and put it in a regulated store where people are asking for IDs, you’re going to drive down youth access, we hope.
There is a recent study that says even though medical marijuana is legal in 23 states and marijuana has been legalized in four states over the last two or three years, youth access has stayed the same. And the other thing I would say about marijuana being a gateway drug is for people who have a substance-abuse disorder – and this is why I don’t hold [Boston Mayor] Marty Walsh’s position that it is a gateway drug against him – if you’re in a group of folks, all of whom have substance-abuse disorders, anything to do with using is going to be a gateway drug.
CW: If you take all of that and say it is no worse and in some ways not even as bad as alcohol, why, then, don’t you have the political backing?
LUZIER: I think people are afraid of losing their constituencies around this because their constituencies haven’t been educated around it.
CW: And yet they passed decriminalization and they passed medical marijuana.
LUZIER: They didn’t pass it. It was an initiative.
CW: That’s what I mean. It was the voters, the constituents, if you will, that passed it. If you’re saying the lawmakers don’t want to lose their constituents, these are the same people that are voting on decriminalization.
LUZIER: Right, over 60 percent in both cases.
CW: If this is passed and you have new legislation and a Legislature that has not shown the willingness to back it, it could be altered by them.
LUZIER: Sure, they can change it to anything they want, but the most important thing is the amount of the plurality. There’s much less of an incentive or an impetus to change the “will of the people” [if it passes by a healthy margin]. I honestly think that while they might be reticent to act on it as a bill, they’d be even more reticent to act against the will of the voters.
CW: Seems there are a lot of people who have been out front saying they smoked when they were young, but that doesn’t seem to translate into a lot of political wherewithal to move it forward.
LUZIER: That’s true, but there didn’t seem to be a lot of political wherewithal in 2008 when decriminalization came in, but decriminalization was passed. There was very little political will in 2012 when the medical marijuana initiative was passed. Last January, House [Bill] 1561 was filed and it has 15 co-sponsors.
CW: What are the chances of this getting passed? What are the chances of it even coming up for a vote in the Legislature?
LUZIER: Probably slim. Most of that may be because they all know the governor has said he won’t sign any bill that comes across his desk with regard to legalization. I don’t think it will pass and there’s even a slimmer chance if it did, that we’d have a veto-proof majority. So bottom line is, we are anticipating we’re going to have to go out and get the other 10,792 signatures in order to get it on the ballot in November.
CW: What about the argument on edibles? [State Sen.] Michael Rodrigues, for instance, had said that he was not opposed to legalizing marijuana and he didn’t see any reason to continue treating it as a crime, whether as a misdemeanor or a felony. Then he went out to Colorado on that recent fact-finding mission and totally changed his tune. “I’m against it,” he said, the same as [Gov.] Charlie Baker, citing the danger of edibles, the high THC level in them, as well as the possibility that children could have access to them. How would you deal with that?
LUZIER: In a number of ways. Some of the politicians that I’ve listened to have said if we can look at the issues that have come up in Colorado and in other states where this has been legalized and address those issues, they could get to yes…. The [proposed] Cannabis Control Commission is mandated to fashion regulations that will prevent the sale of marijuana to people under the age of 21. They will control the packaging and labeling and childproofing of marijuana.
Frankly, I think the issue came up when the governor was most recently on [WGBH’s] Braude and Eagan and Margery Eagan said she tried a “rookie cookie” when she was in Colorado. And the governor said something like, is that something that would appeal to a 21-year-old or is that something that would appeal to a 12-year-old? “This Joe Camel all over again,” he said. So what you do is you do everything you can to make sure that the packaging is childproof and maybe you control it so you don’t have gummy bears and candy. You also need to make sure that people need to understand they need to keep these edibles, if they have them, away from their children.
CW: So you’re putting a lot of the onus on people that are stoned and, by your own example of the cop and driver, kind of slow on the uptake?
LUZIER: Patients that use marijuana feel that edibles are an important delivery method because they can get the effects that they need without smoking it.
CW: But that’s medical marijuana. What about recreational marijuana?
LUZIER: I never did any edibles. I don’t know…
CW: You never did a brownie?
LUZIER: No. People just need to be educated. There’s an educational program in Colorado called Start Low, Start Slow. That’s around educating people so people who have no experience with edibles don’t expect to get high in a few seconds like you might when you smoke. You need to wait half an hour or an hour before the effect of marijuana takes effect. And don’t eat any more in the meantime.
CW: Speaking of the medical side, do you sense opposition within the medical marijuana industry to this bill?
LUZIER: I will say there are some firms, and one example is Patriot Care, they are the folks who got permission to open at 21 Milk Street in Boston. They have said that they are only interested in medical marijuana. Their profile will forgo the adult use of marijuana. It’s understandable that they would be opposed to our bill because it’s going to cut into their hegemony. They’ve got an exclusive in the city of Boston now and who knows if anybody else will be able to open up in Boston as a medical marijuana facility because you need either a letter of support or letter of non-opposition from the Legislature or the executive of the city and town. So the mayor is not going to do it. Who knows whether the City Council is going to do it. But the bottom line is they are protecting their economic interest by opposing it.
CW: If this bill passes, is there a need for medical marijuana?
LUZIER: Yes, absolutely, because people who go to medical marijuana facilities have conditions that may require a particular kind of strain of marijuana. Advisors at the medical marijuana facilities are, hopefully, trained to understand what maladies and strains are compatible.
CW: You mean different kinds of marijuana can treat, for instance, glaucoma, and another kind can treat the side effects of chemotherapy?
CW: I never knew that. I just figured you smoke it and it all had the same effect.
LUZIER: The two major cannabinoids in marijuana – and there are hundreds of them – but the two major ones are THC and CBD, which is cannabidiol. A strain that’s high in CBD but low in THC is very good at treating seizures. Absolutely, there’s different medicinal effects for different kinds of marijuana. Within those strains, there’s different levels of THC, CBD, and other cannabinoids. The bottom line is, there’s still a need for medical marijuana. Patient advocates will say we still want to have the opportunity to have the one-on-one conversation with the bud-tenders or the growers or whatever they’re called to develop a caregiver-patient relationship, if you will.
CW: What would be your preference, that the Legislature works on this or the initiative gets passed?
LUZIER: I think it’s a good bill either way. If the Legislature passed it and the governor signed it, I think that would be marvelous. But I don’t think that’s going to happen. I wish it would. I wish there was consensus around this.
CW: Which carries more force, to have the Legislature pass it and the governor sign it or have the people vote for it?
LUZIER: I think to have the people vote on it. That way, the Legislature hears the voice of the people and they’re not listening to their own voices.
CW: So this would take effect in December?
LUZIER: The personal possession would take effect on December 15. We don’t anticipate that the Cannabis Control Commission will get to regulations and start accepting licenses until probably the beginning of 2018.
CW: Given the problems the state’s had in regulating and issuing licenses for medical marijuana, what makes you think that this will be in place by 2018?
LUZIER: We have what we call the nuclear option, which says that if they don’t promulgate regulations and issue licenses by January 2018, medical facilities can begin to sell it retail until the regulations are promulgated.
CW: Your bill allows for up to 10 ounces of possession in the house…
LUZIER: That’s based on the medical marijuana bill. Medical patients can have up to 10 ounces. So it’s one ounce in public, 10 ounces at home, but nine ounces have to be under lock and key.
CW: What do you mean under lock and key? You can’t just put it in a drawer?
LUZIER: You can put it in the drawer but it should be locked.
CW: How much does an ounce go for on the street right now?
LUZIER: I would guess about $300.
CW: I’m sorry, what?
LUZIER: About $300.
CW: It has been awhile, I guess, since I’ve bought any.
LUZIER: [Laughs] It’s cheaper in Colorado.CW: That was my next question. Do you see this as reducing the cost?
LUZIER: One of the purposes behind this is to undercut the illicit market because we want to get rid of the illicit market, we want to get rid of the gangs and cartels that are out to control this stuff. So to the extent that the Cannabis Control Commission is able to adjust the tax and adjust the cultivation so that the supply meets the demand, to the extent that they are able to make that happen, and part of that is keeping the tax low, then I think the price will come down and we will undercut the market significantly. I don’t think you’ll ever totally get rid of the black market.