Clarence Fanto: High time to legalize pot? Not so fast

Sunday December 9, 2012


Mention the possibility that Massachusetts may become another state to make pot smoking in private legal for people 21 and older -- Washington state and Colorado are the first two to do so -- and folks light up with a lively discussion on whether this is a realistic, not too harmful, step or whether this would accelerate the downfall of society.

For some of us who managed to get through college and grad school in the ‘60s without ever having taken a single puff on a joint, the sight of Washingtonians celebrating with cheers and a blow of smoke for the TV cameras when their law took effect just after midnight on Thursday is jarring and bizarre. "I feel like a kid in a candy store!" shouted legal-pot advocate Darby Hageman during the party under the Space Needle in Seattle. "It's all becoming real now!"

The videos brought to mind news reels and still photos depicting similar scenes of joy when the ill-conceived 13-year Prohibition era ended and legal booze flowed freely again in 1933.

Now that Massachusetts voters have resoundingly approved legalizing the use of marijuana for medical purposes through a binding ballot question that takes effect Jan. 1, it seems only a matter of time before state lawmakers re-open the issue of total legalization, which they've been studying on and off since 2009.

The door opened, more than a crack, in November 2008 as Bay State voters approved decriminalizing possession of an ounce of marijuana or less for recreational purposes, as has been done by 13 other states. If caught and prosecuted -- a rare occurrence now -- the charge is a civil infraction, similar to a speeding ticket, with a potential fine of up to $100. An ounce is enough to roll 50 to 100 joints, by the way, quite sufficient for a pot party.

Leaders in the local legal and medical community were not pleased. Dr. Jennifer Michaels, a psychiatrist who specializes in addiction and runs the highly regarded Brien Center for substance abuse and mental health issues in Pittsfield, pointed out shortly after that vote that the psychoactive substance in marijuana, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), has become 10 times more powerful than it was in 1970 and more children enter drug treatment programs for marijuana than all other drugs combined.

While the focus has shifted since then to combating widespread criminal abuse of prescription painkillers (opiods) as well as heroin and crack cocaine, the question lingers: Is marijuana use, especially in excess, a gateway to harder drugs for some people? There's compelling evidence to support this theory.

Many people in the county, judging by my very unscientific sample, favor legalizing marijuana with careful regulation. Some employ this rationale with enthusiasm; others with realistic reluctance. Alcohol consumption, cigarette smoking and gambling are cited as legal activities that, when abused, lead to more horrifying medical, social and legal impacts.

But a look at what's happening in Washington state raises the specter of a bureaucratic nightmare with very consequential complications.

Remember that recreational marijuana use remains against federal law, specifically the Controlled Substances Act. As The New York Times reported on Friday, top White House and Justice Department officials are considering plans for legal action against Washington and Colorado. It could be that the feds could sue the states and, eventually, strike down the voter-approved initiatives or thwart the elaborate regulatory system required by the state laws.

Even if that doesn't happen, distributing marijuana remains illegal in Washington, which has a year to set up licensed sales channels for pot growers, processors, distributors and to an unlimited number of independent retailers, similar in part to liquor-sales regulations.

Only licensed growers can produce marijuana and nowhere else but in the state of Washington. A 25 percent state excise tax would hit growers when they sell to processors; another 25 percent is to be charged when processors sell to retailers, and yet another 25 percent tax is imposed when customers buy from a store. Those buyers will also pay sales taxes and retailers will owe the state business and occupancy taxes.

All this will yield a bonanza of hundreds of millions of dollars a year to help fund Washington's schools, health care and other state government programs.

Massachusetts lawmakers -- eagerly awaiting the fast-flowing money spigot after three state-approved casinos open in a few years -- must be salivating at the prospect of yet another river of cash from taxes on social vices.

Although half of Americans have tried marijuana and about 17 million are reported to be regular users currently; there were 859,000 arrests for pot-related offenses in 2010, according to the FBI, with 750,000 of those for possession. The total exceeds arrests for any other type of crime, even more than for driving under the influence of alcohol.

That makes no sense. But ignoring the potential health hazards of pot smoking is equally nonsensical. Massachusetts voters should tread very carefully and take a few years to see how recreational marijuana works out in Washington and Colorado.

As someone who gets "high" from a brisk hike in the forest, an hour at the fitness center, or simply experiencing great art in the concert hall, on stage or on film, I consider the notion of finding pleasure in a mind-altering, possibly dangerous chemical substance appalling.

Then again, a Bloody Mary or two, a glass of white wine or two, are daily pleasures that create a pleasant "buzz."

Life remains complicated, a puzzlement, if you examine a complex issue not from a black or white perspective but by taking into account all the hazy shades of gray.

Count me, for now,

Clarence Fanto writes from Lenox. To reach him, email


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