Lawmakers hear testimony on pot legalization

Is marijuana harmless or the first step on a ladder to harder drugs?


Activists in favor of the legalization of the adult use of marijuana squared off Monday with law enforcement officials and legislators in what one activist called “the eruption, at long last, of the first-ever public debate about marijuana in Massachusetts.”

The Joint Committee on the Judiciary heard testimony on the statutory version of a ballot question advanced by the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol that would legalize and regulate the sale and use of marijuana. The question appears poised to go before voters in November.

“We had full legalization of cannabis in this country for a couple hundred years before the 1930s and we had no problem with it,” Linda Noel, treasurer of the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition, said. “The problems we see from cannabis now are caused by cannabis prohibition — you’ve got the black market selling to underage people, you’ve got violence, you’ve got money laundering — all of those things are due to the black market.”

Marijuana advocates have had marked success taking marijuana reform efforts directly to the voters. Possession of less than an ounce of pot was decriminalized by Massachusetts voters in 2008 and four years later voters handily approved the medical use of marijuana.

Gov. Charlie Baker, Attorney General Maura Healey, and Boston Mayor Martin Walsh published an op-ed in the Boston Globe urging voters to reject any initiative to make marijuana more accessible. “We hope voters will listen to the doctors, counselors, and substance-abuse specialists in our own world-class medical community who are expressing concerns over legalization. Decades of research have now debunked the myth that marijuana is harmless,” they wrote. “The science also shows that regular marijuana users – especially those who start at a young age – are more likely to try more dangerous drugs.”

Dick Evans, chairman of the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, said the op-ed relied on bad science and effectively embraced the destructive consequences of marijuana prohibition. “Let’s keep in mind a very simple fact, that to oppose legalization is to embrace prohibition and vice versa. It’s a binary choice, one or the other,” Evans said in written testimony. “If, like the governor, you’re against legalization, that means you’re against bringing the industry out of the shadows and subjecting it to regulation like nearly all other industries.”

Baker, asked by reporters Monday afternoon about the op-ed, said he supports the 2008 decriminalization law and medical marijuana, but has “great concern” about full legalization based on information he’s received from Colorado and Washington.

“You talk to almost anybody in the public health area and they’ll say their ability to keep up with what’s going on in the industry is very daunting,” he said.

On Tuesday, the Senate Committee on Marijuana is scheduled to release findings from a trip eight senators took to Colorado to study the implementation of marijuana legalization there. A handful of senators who made the trip — including Sens. Michael Moore, Michael Rodrigues, and Vinny deMacedo — testified Monday against moving ahead with legalization in Massachusetts.

The proposed ballot initiative would enact a 3.75 percent state excise tax on retail marijuana sales, allow adults 21 and older to possess up to an ounce of marijuana in public and up to 10 ounces in a locked location within their home, and establish a state regulatory framework to oversee the new industry.

Chief John Carmichael of the Walpole Police Department told lawmakers that the number of fatal traffic crashes has gone up in Colorado since marijuana was legalized and “the roads are less safe” there because of it.

“On the law enforcement side, we’re not ready for this,” Carmichael said. “We do not have standardized field sobriety testing, we lack DREs — drug recognition experts — in our state, we don’t have implied consent and we don’t have a per se amount for DUI drugs in Massachusetts.”

The committee also heard from Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O’Keefe, who said that he and his fellow district attorneys are unanimous in their opposition to the ballot question “because our experience tells us this would not benefit the commonwealth and its most important resource — our young people.”

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O’Keefe added, “Why we think this is a good idea to do now, in the midst of what we’re going through with opiates in this state, eludes me.”

Noel argued that legal access to marijuana would actually prevent young people from encountering heroin or other drugs because they would no longer be interacting with black market drug dealers who push harder drugs.