Will Massachusetts Be The Next State To Legalize Marijuana?
Tuesday, January 14, 2014
With recreational use now legal in Washington and Colorado after successful ballot initiatives in 2012, political spectators are wondering which states will follow suit.
According to the Marijuana Policy Project's Mason Tvert, that national drug law reform group is eyeing a dozen states where legalization could occur next.
“Our organization has made it clear we're going to support ballot initiatives and lobbying in state legislatures,” Tvert said, tallying possible ballot measures in Massachusetts, Maine, Arizona, California, Nevada, and Montana.
There's momentum meanwhile for state lawmakers to pass legislation in Rhode Island, Maryland, Delaware, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Hawaii, Tvert continued.
Different paths toward legalization
Although both Massachusetts and Rhode Island are viewed as likely battlegrounds — both have decriminalized small amounts of possession and have medical marijuana laws on the books — the approach in each state is shaping up along different lines.
When might legalization occur in Massachusetts?
“Place your bets today,” said Bill Downing, treasurer of the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition and a committee member of Bay State Repeal, a group working toward putting the item before voters in 2016. (Some voters in the state may see non-binding referendum questions this year.)
After similar successful public referendums for decriminalization in 2008 and medical use in 2012, Downing said putting the issue to voters was the only way legalization was likely to occur in Massachusetts.
“2016 is the year” for a ballot measure, he said. “It's going to happen, it's just a matter of when.”
While bills have been sponsored and heard in the state legislature in recent years, those efforts have had little traction and local representatives said they didn't believe the issue would be seriously considered any time soon.
“I haven't heard any talk about legalization. I certainly won't be filing any bills for legalization, so it's a big 'What if?'” said state Sen. Michael Moore, a Democrat representing Millbury.
“I'd have to see what the hearing does, I'd have to see what the consensus is — I'd have to see what the momentum is,” responded Democratic Rep. John Binienda of Worcester.
Both Moore and Binienda were critical of the suggested change.
“I was opposed to the decriminalization,” Moore said, raising concerns with the potency of the drug today, the gateway effect, and legalization's potential impact on youth use rates.
“You don't want kids getting this stuff,” Binienda said.
Public opinion precedes lawmakers
With national polls showing a recent shift toward support, high rates of voter participation in the next presidential election year are seen as a good opportunity for ballot measures according to Tvert.
“Colorado and Washington are demonstrating to the other states that regulating marijuana is possible, and we believe it will be a fair and effective alternative to prohibition,” he said.
Painting the drug as less harmful than tobacco or alcohol, “our goal is to get people to think about how we treat alcohol. We tax and regulate alcohol and we could be doing this with marijuana,” Tvert said.
“Marijuana has been used for a long time, and it's not going anywhere. It's time to get our heads out of the sand,” he concluded. “Citizens are often ahead of elected officials on issues like this.”
Most recently in Massachusetts, a September 2013 survey by Public Policy Polling found a plurality of support for legalization in the state: 49 percent said it should be legal while 39 percent said it should not.
Marijuana use rates in Northeast
New England states lead the nation in rates of marijuana use according to recent health surveys by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
According to national surveys on drug use and health by SAMHSA, New England states take four of the top five slots for the highest rates of reported marijuana use in the past year.
After Alaska, Vermont has the second-highest percentage of residents who reported using marijuana in the past year, with 14.9 percent of respondents.
Rhode Island was ranked third, with 14.85 percent reporting use.
After New Hampshire (14.6 percent), Massachusetts was fifth in the nation with 14.19 percent of adult residents reporting marijuana use.
Connecticut came in 12th while Maine was 13th.
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