The Road to Lawful Marijuana in Massachusetts by Jessica Shotorbani

The Road to Lawful Marijuana in Massachusetts by Jessica Shotorbani

In November 2016, Massachusetts legalized the use of marijuana, becoming one of seven states in the nation to allow the recreational use of the drug. While the margin of yes to no votes was relatively small, the results were a resounding victory for all those who worked tirelessly on the campaign to legalize marijuana.
  So how did we get to this point and what were the contributing factors leading up the initiative for legalizing marijuana in the state? To begin with Massachusetts had passed a law allowing for the use of medical marijuana in the state back in 2012 and to many this was the first step in the right direction to getting the drug fully legalized in all its many uses. Even while the federal government still lists marijuana as a Schedule 1 controlled substance with no medical value.
But even before all of this happened, there were still people using and celebrating the drug at Boston’s annual Freedom Rally. The Boston Freedom Rally, commonly referred to as Hempfest, began in 1989 and is the second largest gathering of its kind right after the Seattle Hempfest. It is organized every year by the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition (MassCann) and usually features vendors specializing in marijuana related products and musical performances.
            The event is monitored by officials, but most people see and treat it as a free for all to smoke and distribute the drug amongst themselves without much fear of persecution. While the event initially only drew avid recreational smokers of marijuana who were just looking for a good time, over the years the event became more and more politicized. Soon it turned into an activist movement that demanded social and judicial change.
            Then in the summer of 2015 a coalition of marijuana advocates came together to draft an initiative to legalize the drug. The law they came up with proposed the idea of the state regulating marijuana as it does alcohol. Meaning that no one under 21 could drink or posses it, it could not be sold to minors, and it would be taxed. In order to get the initiative on the ballot the coalition needed to collect about 65,000 signatures to have the Massachusetts’s legislation consider it as a state statue. The coalition ended up collecting 105,000 signatures.


            Despite having collected more signatures that what was required of them and clearly showing that the public supported the initiative, Massachusetts legislators did not act on the bill, meaning that it was not approved by a quarter of the legislature in two joint sessions to reach the ballot. In such cases, initiatives can circumvent the legislature if an addition 10,000 signatures are collected. The coalition went out collecting signature again and came back with 25,000, which firmly cemented the initiative’s place on the ballot. While many other coalitions, such as the Campaign for a Safe and Healthy Massachusetts, tried to prevent the initiative from reaching that ballot, the attempts were unsuccessful and so began to raging war of yes and no campaigns.
            Campaigns arguing for and against the initiative, which became known as Question 4, began around the summer of 2016 and give each group a little less than 5 months to persuade voters with their arguments. Those for the initiative, such as Regulate Mass, argued that it would make marijuana, a substance that people were already using despite it being illegal, safer. It would no longer be a street drug that financially fueled drug cartels that sold the substance without any regulation or taxation. They received support from certain law enforcement officials, doctors, and business owners.
Opponents of Question 4 believed that marijuana had no place in Massachusetts and that legalizing it would promote the use of the drug and would ultimately cause more deaths and innocent children being exposed to drugs. However data from other states such as Washington and Oregon, who had already legalized and commercialized the drug, showed that such claims were untrue. In fact more deaths every year were being caused by alcohol than marijuana.
            Along with the campaigns, the local news media had a field day covering the topic and getting the latest on what the public thought of the initiative.
            Some media sources even took hard line stances on the Question through their editorial sections, thus exposing their readers to open and honest opinions of reporters who usually shy away from expressing personal thoughts and prefer just sticking to the facts. No doubt these editorials caused some controversy among readers who did not agree with the paper’s opinion.
            Around this time many government officials also made their opinions on the issue known such as Governor Charlie Baker, Mayor Marty Walsh, and Attorney General Maura Healey, all of whom were against Question 4.
            It was then time for the 2016 Boston Freedom Rally in September. The rally took on an even bigger meaning that year since voters would be making the decision of whether to legalize pot in less than 2 months. MassCann organized the rally as they normally did, but added an extra political element to the gathering’s atmosphere, hoping it would educate and persuade voters.


            Finally it was crunch time for the campaigns and they did their best to make their arguments with the public and to make sure that people actually voted. Anti-Question 4 groups continued to emphasis the family and safety issue while their opponents stressed the importance of regulating and taxing the drug to make it safer and even brought in some celebrities who supported the cause like Rick Steves, who was heavily involved in the legalizing of the drug in Washington.
It was also a big goal of the pro-Question 4 groups to make sure their supporters, who were mainly of the younger generation, were registered and ready to vote on November 8th since those under the age of 30 have historically had low voter turnout.
            November finally came and the voters of Massachusetts made their voices heard. By a relatively close margin Question 4 passed and made the recreational use and commercial distribution of the drug legal in the state. Campaigns like Regulate Mass thought their work was over now that the political battle had been won and all they had to do was wait until the law went into full effect, but that has not entirely been the case. While the use and possession of marijuana is legal, the selling of it, which was set to begin in January 2018 was postponed. In December 2016 just about a month after the initiative became law, Governor Baker and other legislators posted the opening of commercial businesses wanting to sell marijuana until the summer of 2018 citing that local authorities needed more time to adjust to the changes in business and law enforcement policies. Many people became angry at what they perceived to be a politically motivated move. MassCann organized a rally on the steps of the state house to express their anger and what they deemed to be an undemocratic decision.
            While legislators seem to be trying their best to stop Question 4 from going into full effect, the residents of Massachusetts who voted in favor of the bill are not going to give up so easily and will not stop on holding the government accountable. Marijuana has been part of the cultural makeup of Boston for decades and despite all the controversy surrounding this new law, it’s clear that people are still going to be lighting up, getting high, and relaxing no matter the political drama taking place behind closed doors at the State House.
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