Massachusetts policy makers have a chance to get ahead with planning for possible marijuana legalization, but it appears they are looking backward, not forward. (Denver Post file)

Op-ed: Reefer Madness looms over Massachusetts’ path to legalization

Massachusetts’ top politicians just came out swinging against legal marijuana.

Voters there are on track to decide whether to legalize marijuana at the ballot box this November. But the state’s Republican governor and Democratic attorney general have penned an op-ed with Boston’s mayor encouraging residents to Just Say No.

Noting that the state has already decriminalized the possession of small quantities of marijuana and is in the process of setting up a medical marijuana regime, the politicians say that “the question before us now is whether marijuana should be fully legal and widely available for commercial sale. We think the answer is ‘no.'”

They argue that regular marijuana use causes IQ declines (studies say no, it doesn’t), that it impairs brain development (latest research says no), and that it negatively impacts graduation rates and career success (not that simple). They argue that a commercial market will lead to more teens using the drug (hasn’t happened in Washington and Colorado — yet).

“Marijuana is not safe,” they conclude. As if to drive home the point, a Massachusetts Senate committee released a lengthy report Tuesday echoing many of these points and outlining ways lawmakers could blunt the impact of the ballot initiative if it passes this fall. A group of state senators went on a fact-finding trip to Colorado and consulted with 75 experts to come up with a number of recommendations on how the state legislature should respond if the legalization ballot initiative passes in November.

Among other things, the Senate’s recommendations include:

–Limiting the availability of certain types of edible products that may be attractive to children, like candies;

–Requiring plain, child-resistant packaging for products sold at the retail level;

–Putting strict limits on advertising;

–Prohibiting home-growing permanently or at least temporarily.

The initiative’s backers blasted the report and the op-ed yesterday. They say that the lawmakers’ lack of nuance in portraying the risks of marijuana use is a throwback to the drug panic days of old.

“A lot of this stuff is directly from 1930s, reefer madness,” initiative spokesman Jim Borghesani told MassLive. “It’s just recycled hysteria and we don’t think anybody’s falling for that,” he added.

Mark Kleiman is a drug policy expert at UCLA who was consulted on the Massachusetts Senate report. He’s written extensively on how voter initiatives are not necessarily the best way to solve complex regulatory problems like legal marijuana.

“It would be better, in my view, for the legislature to write a coherent legalization bill incorporating some of [the Senate report’s] restrictions, rather than trying to retrofit restrictions into a voter-passed initiative,” he said in an email. “That debate would move attention away from the fun-to-argue-about ‘yes or no’ question to the much thornier ‘how’ questions.”

But state legislators have been squeamish about tackling legalization directly. And in the absence of action on their part, voters have taken measures into their own hands, driving successful legalization initiatives in Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska and D.C.

Only two states have seen serious attempts to address marijuana legalization via the legislature. Rhode Island legislators are trying to pass a legalization bill this session. And a Vermont legalization measure recently passed the state Senate and is now before the House.

The Massachusetts Senate report “is basic CYA public policy,” said John Hudak of the Brookings Institution. Hudak has studied the successes and failures of regulatory regimes currently in place in Washington and Colorado. The report “asserts from the outset that implementation of legal marijuana is hard, risky and costly, essentially, ‘if this is what the voters want don’t blame us for screwing us up.'”

But Hudak calls this framing “a little over the top,” noting that Massachusetts regulators can simply look to Colorado or Washington to get a roadmap for what effective marijuana policy looks like. Armed with this knowledge, Massachusetts lawmakers are “leaps and bounds ahead of where Colorado and Washington were in December 2012.”

A bud sits in a display jar at the Helping Hand marijuana store in Boulder on Sept. 16, 2015. (Jeremy Papasso, Daily Camera)
A bud sits in a display jar at the Helping Hand marijuana store in Boulder on Sept. 16, 2015. (Jeremy Papasso, Daily Camera)

Other experts, like Beau Kilmer of the RAND Corporation, point out that legalization doesn’t have to be a binary choice between “drug-war style prohibition” and “full commercialization.” Kilmer and his colleagues identify a full spectrum of policy options between these extremes, covering everything from only allowing home-grows to government monopolies on the production and sale of marijuana.

Kilmer says some of those middle options provide greater protections for public health than full commercialization or retaining the status quo. “For public health-minded individuals considering alternatives to prohibiting marijuana supply, an incremental approach may be optimal,” he said in an email. “Since no one knows how legalization is going to play out, it is very risky to jump from prohibition to a for-profit commercial model that neither limits potency nor products-especially in the US where it is difficult to limit advertising.”

The irony is that many policymakers don’t begin to consider the possibilities of more public health-minded legalization measures until voters force the issue with a ballot amendment. But by that point, it may be too late for lawmakers to change the conversation.

Indeed, the conversation may change them. “Several Colorado officials who opposed the legalization initiative in 2012 have changed their tune following its successful implementation,” said Mason Tvert of the Marijuana Policy Project in an email. “We won’t be surprised when the same thing occurs in Massachusetts in a couple years.”