Politicians taking sides as marijuana legalization campaign heats up
BOSTON >> As proponents gathered outside the State House Wednesday to urge support for marijuana legalization and condemn arguments against it as rooted in fear, opponents of a ballot question to allow the adult use of marijuana released a list of 119 members of the Legislature opposing legalization.
Massachusetts voters will decide at the ballot box in November whether to legalize adult use of marijuana while also setting up taxation and a regulatory structure for marijuana sales.
Supporters on Wednesday described backing the question as a matter of fairness and racial justice and said the tax revenue could provide an infusion of financial resources for areas like education, infrastructure and addiction treatment.
"I want to thank my colleagues in government for being here and for their political courage as well, because we see a lot of our colleagues and other elected officials buying into the same old tired arguments around fear," Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse said. "And we should not be creating public policy by trying to scare people and making them believe this is negative for themselves, for their families and for their communities."
Along with Morse, the elected officials who participated in the press conference were Rep. David Rogers and Boston city councilors Michelle Wu and Tito Jackson. Rogers, a Cambridge Democrat, is one of 10 lawmakers, all Democrats, who last week endorsed the legalization proposal, Question 4.
"Sometimes when we make laws, we don't always have perfect data or the empirical evidence to make good policy. We make judgement calls," Rogers said Wednesday. "In the case of marijuana, though, we have decade after decade after decade after decade of data, and our current approach has failed abysmally, and it's obvious. If the goal was to stop people from using marijuana, how has that worked out?"
The opposition campaign counts several Beacon Hill heavy hitters in its corner, including Gov. Charlie Baker, Speaker Robert DeLeo and Attorney General Maura Healey. Ninety-seven House lawmakers and 22 senators — a majority in both branches — signed onto a letter distributed Wednesday by the Campaign for a Safe and Healthy Massachusetts, calling on voters to reject the question.
Senate President Stanley Rosenberg was not among the lawmakers who signed the opposition letter, nor has he endorsed the legalization campaign. In an interview on Boston Herald Radio Thursday, Rosenberg declined to say how he plans to vote on the question, but he said "adults should be able to make these choices."
The letter says that Massachusetts has already taken "major steps to address concerns" around marijuana, pointing to the 2008 decriminalization of possession of less than ounce of marijuana and the 2012 legalization of medical marijuana.
Asked about the 81 lawmakers whose signatures were not on the letter, Campaign for a Safe and Healthy Massachusetts Corey Welford said in a statement, "We were able to speak with most legislators. The vast majority — including Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives — wanted to publicly opposed this question now because they believe it is the wrong path for their communities. Based on our conversations, we believe a number of others are likely to oppose this question as they continue to discuss the issue in the coming months."
Both decriminalization and medical marijuana were decided via referendum. Speakers at the Yes on 4 press conferences said that neither policy change was sufficient.
Wu, Boston's city council president, said she has never used marijuana but supports legalization for "social justice reasons." She said the first time she smelled marijuana smoke was while attending college at Harvard University, an experience she said she has since reflected on as an example of "uneven enforcement" of existing marijuana laws.
"What kind of a system are we building if Harvard kids can smoke pot and continue to enjoy every privilege, but black and brown residents go to jail, face disproportionate impacts in enforcement?" Wu said.
The Massachusetts Chiefs of Police, Massachusetts Sheriffs Association and the state's district attorneys have all come out against marijuana legalization, according to the opposition campaign.
Suffolk County Sheriff Steven Tompkins said after the press conference that he understood arguments being raised about "people falling into the criminal justice system" but would "rather err on the side of caution" on marijuana policy.
"I'm always concerned, particularly as a sheriff, about who goes to jail and who does not, and when you look at the overwhelming number of people of color, black and Latino, that are in our incarceration facilities, yes, I am very concerned about that," Tompkins told the News Service. "That said, I have to balance that with health issues and I have to balance that with what I see going on."
Tompkins said he was particularly concerned about the ability to manipulate levels of the psychoactive component THC in marijuana edibles and the potential for such products to appeal to children.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.