Top pols say just vote no

Officials focus on impact on kids in opposing pot ballot question

THE STATE’S TOP elected officials from both sides of the aisle made a powerful political appeal to oppose the ballot question that would legalize the adult use and commercial sale of marijuana: Vote no for the kids.

At the William J. Ostiguy Recovery High School in downtown Boston, a facility aimed at students with addiction problems, the lineup of officials who crowded around a small classroom to defeat the measure included Gov. Charlie Baker, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, and a who’s who of state senators, representatives, district attorneys, and sheriffs as well as addiction specialists and educators. One after another, the speakers focused on the “unquestioned” link between youth marijuana use as a gateway to the scourge of opioid addiction, though there are other studies that dispute the causal connection.

The opponents of the ballot question are using a time-tested emotional appeal to counter the argument by supporters that legalizing pot for adult use is the best way to crack down on the black market and make it more difficult for youths to buy pot on the street.

James Borghesani, spokesman for the pro-pot Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, said the fear-mongering on the part of opponents is doing more harm to youths than developing a system like that used for alcohol. He said the unregulated black market is why it’s easier for kids to get pot than beer.

“The system that we have has failed,” said Borghesani. “We have a prohibition system that lets drug dealers pretty much control the market. Drug dealers don’t ask for IDs. We think this is the more dangerous system now.”

Baker warned unless the referendum was nipped in the bud, it would be similar to the years of ignoring the link between prescription painkillers and narcotic abuse and addiction.

“We are waking up today some 10 to 15 years later trying to put that genie back in the bottle,” Baker declared. “There are all sorts of unintended consequences heading down this road [of legalization] and most of them fall on young people.”

Most every official talked about the personal stake they have in stopping the initiative, as a concerned parent, friend, or neighbor and seeing the result of addiction that they all said often started with one puff of a joint. For Walsh, the issue is “very personal” because of his 20 years in recovery and knowing families who have gone or are going through the battles of addiction.

Walsh warned the ballot question will create a billion-dollar industry aimed at vulnerable populations such as the poor and minorities, much the way tobacco companies marketed cigarettes.

“We can expect city neighborhoods are going to be the first targets,” Walsh said. “This isn’t about allowing somebody to buy a joint and smoke a joint.”

The press conference was a powerful presentation of bipartisan opposition to a question that at one point enjoyed 2-to-1 advantage in polling. But the Campaign for a Safe & Healthy Massachusetts, which is using the star power of the biggest players in state politics, has chipped away at that so now most surveys show a tie or, worse for supporters, a losing proposition because of the pounding from elected and law enforcement officials. Though the organization has not filed any fundraising reports yet, officials expect to draw on the fundraising prowess of the big names to finance the campaign.

Many of the speakers said medical marijuana is already legal in the state and decriminalization has removed the threat of arrest and incarceration for possessing small amounts of marijuana. But they said legalizing pot will make it more available and contribute to problems, especially with youths struggling to cope with the pressures of growing up amid the troubles of modern day society which already make it hard to be a kid.

“The world as we see it is going to hell in a handbasket,” said Suffolk County Sheriff Steven Tompkins.

Dr. Sharon Levy, a pediatrician and director of the Adolescent Substance Abuse Program at Boston Children’s Hospital, said marijuana can have a debilitating physiological effect on developing brains and can lead children more quickly down the path of addiction than adults. She said the drug can have a damaging effect on memory, attentiveness, learning ability, and social skills.

DeLeo abandoned his planned remarks and spoke about knocks on his door on weekend nights from people looking for help for a son or daughter struggling with addiction. He spoke of a young mother whose son was brought back from a near-fatal overdose by the injection of Narcan, the overdose-reversing drug in widespread use by police and fire officials around the state.

DeLeo said when his staff first asked what they should say when the ballot question was first proposed, it was a no-brainer to come out against it immediately and forcefully, mostly because of his work on addressing addiction treatment. He said he’d be a “hypocrite” if he championed drug treatment legislation and then backed legalization of marijuana.

“The decision for me was very easy,” he said. “All I have to do is look at the obituary pages and see 30, 31 year olds. That’s the worst for me.”

Every speaker focused on the impact on children should Massachusetts join Colorado, Oregon, Washington, and Alaska in legalizing the recreational use of marijuana. One of the biggest dangers, they said, is from so-called edibles, food products that have high quantities of THC, the active hallucinogen in marijuana, as an ingredient.  They claimed items such as gummy bears, cookies, and drinks that look like non-marijuana counterparts could attract children who might be unaware of the content.

Meet the Author

Jack Sullivan

Senior Investigative Reporter, CommonWealth

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is a veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

A Boston native, Jack has lived in Massachusetts all his life. He was a major in English and history with a minor in political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A father and grandfather, he lives in Plymouth with his wife, Susan.

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is a veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

A Boston native, Jack has lived in Massachusetts all his life. He was a major in English and history with a minor in political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A father and grandfather, he lives in Plymouth with his wife, Susan.

Borghesani, who was booted out of the meeting which was taking place in a public school, told reporters afterwards that much of the rhetoric was simply scare tactics. He said even the strongest proponent of marijuana legalization would oppose youth use and said the debate over edibles can easily be cured through regulation. He said he agreed that using items such as gummy bears and gummy worms is dangerous and should not be allowed in Massachusetts, noting that Colorado came to the same conclusion and is now banning such items.

“We understand the concern and share that concern,” Borghesani said. “We don’t want children ingesting edibles… We’re going to learn from other states going forward.”