By Andy Metzger
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
---- — BOSTON — With evidence accumulating in the Rocky Mountains and on the Pacific Coast about the effects of legalized and regulated marijuana sales, activists are pushing Bay State lawmakers to take the plunge into a legitimate marijuana marketplace.
“The sky has not fallen in Colorado,” Richard Evans, a Northampton attorney, told the Judiciary Committee yesterday. He said violent crime and property crimes are down in Denver. Voters in Colorado and Washington state both legalized marijuana in 2012.
Having won fights to decriminalize under an ounce of marijuana in a 2008 ballot vote and the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes on the 2012 ballot, pro-pot activists in Massachusetts are girding for another electoral contest in 2016 to legalize the drug for recreational use.
Meanwhile Patrick Kennedy, the former congressman from Rhode Island who has struggled with addiction, is evangelizing around the country about the dangers of marijuana legalization.
Smart Approaches to Marijuana, led by Kennedy, claims the drug is now much more accessible to Colorado youth who can conceal their intake by using vaporizers rather than smoking it, and notes research about permanent effects the drug has on users.
“We cannot promote a comprehensive system of mental health treatment and marijuana legalization, which increases permissiveness for a drug that directly contributes to mental illness,” Kennedy said in a quote on the SAM website.
Bay State Repeal, the ballot group, has reported little fundraising since its inception last November through the end of the year, but ballot initiatives for relaxing marijuana laws have proved popular in Massachusetts even as legislation regularly fails to gain traction in the Legislature.
“The issue before this committee today, Mr. Chairman, as I see it is not how marijuana is going to be legalized in Massachusetts. The issue is who’s going to do it? Is it going to be the Legislature, or will it be the voters?” Evans asked the Judiciary Committee.
He continued, “If the Legislature continues to cede the leadership on this issue to the voters, as it has done for the last two election cycles, then you can be sure that the bill that the people of Massachusetts are looking at in January of 2017 will be one that’s drawn, not calculated to protect the public health and safety, but rather to attract the support of as many voters as possible who are tired of prohibition and are looking for an opportunity to do something about it.”
Evans told reporters the bill (H 1632) filed by Amherst Democrat Rep. Ellen Story is similar to a citizen petition he initially filed in 1981. Asked if he would play a role in the ballot push, Evans said, “I hope so.”
The Story bill would allow adults to cultivate and share marijuana, and allow licensed commercial proprietors to sell the leafy drug, also known as cannabis.
Sen. William Brownsberger, the new Senate chairman of the Judiciary Committee, is in favor of legalizing marijuana. During a congressional campaign last year, the Belmont Democrat said, “Let’s treat it the same way we do alcohol.”
House Speaker Robert DeLeo has said he is concerned about substance abuse, but he would listen to the voters.
“I’d respect whatever the ballot is, as in the past. The only thing I would say: For the past years, I’ve been working substantially on the issue of substance abuse here in Massachusetts — whether it’s drugs or alcohol or whatnot,” DeLeo told the News Service in December when asked about the move to put it on the 2016 ballot. “So anything of that sort, I’ll listen to it, and listen very clearly and follow the will of voters, but it’s something I’m concerned about.”
Evans told lawmakers legalization legislation should be passed through the Legislature rather than through a ballot initiative, saying opponents of a ballot referendum will argue that such matters should not be determined through an up-or-down vote in an election.
“The response to that is: Yes, you’re right. Voters should not be making laws like this. Legislators should. But when the legislators won’t, voters must,” Evans said. He said, “So long as the Legislature continues to do nothing on this issue, you are continuing to cede leadership to the voters, and giving people like me and the other activists who support these reforms the moral high ground.”