Hello BMG community. This is Senator Jason Lewis. Seeing the recent discussion on BMG about marijuana legalization I thought I would share my perspective on this issue and why I oppose the likely November ballot question.
A year ago, Senate President Stan Rosenberg created the Special Senate Committee on Marijuana, and asked me to lead this effort. The Committee’s purpose was to conduct a thorough and objective review and analysis of the many public policy ramifications if Massachusetts were to legalize marijuana for recreational use and sale. We did a deep dive on marijuana policy, including extensive research and interviews with more than 75 expert stakeholders in Massachusetts and across the country. We also spent almost a week on the ground in Colorado, to observe firsthand the marijuana industry from “seed to sale” and to hear directly from state and local government regulators and industry officials. The Committee produced a 118 page report with our findings and recommendations which I encourage you to read (or at least skim) if you’re interested in this topic.
I began this process knowing very little about marijuana policy and with an open mind about whether legalization would be good or bad for Massachusetts. I maintained a neutral position throughout the process, and the Committee did not take a position on legalization or the ballot question (since it was not charged with doing so).
Once the Committee had wrapped up its work, given everything I had learned over the past year, I took a public position in opposition to the ballot question. I’m now active on the Steering Committee of the Campaign for a Safe and Healthy Massachusetts (the organization recently formed by Governor Baker, Speaker DeLeo, and Mayor Walsh to oppose the ballot question).
I know many people think what’s the big deal if an adult wants to smoke a joint now and then. It doesn’t seem more harmful than having a beer or a cocktail? So why shouldn’t we just go ahead and legalize marijuana already? Well, the proposed ballot question to legalize recreational marijuana use and sale in Massachusetts is about far more than an adult simply being able to smoke a joint. And I think that once people begin to understand how far reaching this proposal is and how many troubling issues are involved, they will conclude that the ballot question is bad for Massachusetts.
The first thing to understand is that marijuana today is vastly different from a few decades ago. It is consumed in many different ways, including smoking, vaping (similar to e-cigarettes), dabbing (inhaling highly concentrated THC), and eating or drinking marijuana-infused foods and beverages. The latter is the fastest growing part of the market and includes cookies, candy, energy drinks, and almost anything else you can imagine. Edibles present particularly challenging issues for public health and safety, such as overconsumption by adults and accidental consumption by children. The potency (THC content) of today’s marijuana is far greater than in years past. A joint in the 1970s had a potency of about 2%; the average potency of products on the market today in Colorado is 18%, and some marijuana extracts are getting close to 100% pure THC. The Netherlands defines marijuana with a potency above 15% as a hard drug. Higher potency appears to increase the risk of harmful health consequences and addiction.
The scientific evidence is now absolutely clear that marijuana is unsafe for young people whose brains are still developing. Cognitive development, physical health, mental health and career prospects may all face serious impairment. Approximately one in six people who begin using as a minor will become addicted to marijuana. These young people and their families face a terrible struggle to overcome their dependence.
What the ballot question is really about is opening the door to a billion dollar, commercial, profit-driven marijuana industry in Massachusetts. This new industry will be highly motivated to increase marijuana consumption, both by getting people to use more and by gaining new customers. They will target young people because that’s a proven strategy to win new customers and grow your business. The industry’s advertising and marketing will further normalize marijuana use, marijuana availability is likely to increase even more than today, and competition will lead to collapsing prices. All of which will increase youth marijuana use. The industry’s profits will come at the expense of public health and the wellbeing of our young people. We are already seeing this playing out in Colorado which now has more pot shops than Starbucks and McDonalds combined and where youth marijuana consumption is the highest of any state in the nation. The playbook of big tobacco will be repurposed for big marijuana.
The ballot question also has numerous other problems. It has no limits or restrictions on edibles (even products like marijuana gummy bears), no limits on potency, no details on labeling requirements, an overly aggressive and unrealistic implementation timeline, and no provision for baseline data collection and research. Local control over whether to allow different types of marijuana businesses would be significantly handicapped. The proposed ballot question would also allow home growing of up to 12 plants. A single plant can generate about a pound of marijuana, worth as much as $5,000. This is very different from home brewing. It will be almost impossible for law enforcement to identify and stop illegal growing and diversion to the black market. Issues with multi-family residences, odor, wastewater, and other problems will be rampant.
Even if the ballot question were to pass in Massachusetts, marijuana would still be illegal under federal law. This creates numerous additional challenges and complications. For example, state government would have to take on difficult and costly responsibilities like ensuring product safety and regulating pesticides, which would ordinarily be the responsibility of federal agencies like the FDA and EPA. Since banks are regulated by the Federal Reserve, most of them are unwilling to do business with the marijuana industry, resulting in lots of cash transactions and serious security issues. Employers face thorny questions when state law conflicts with federal law.
The proponents of the ballot question say that we need to legalize marijuana so we stop throwing people in jail for smoking a joint, eliminate the black market, and generate tax revenues to help fund public services. These all sound like excellent arguments, except they’re all specious. Since we already decriminalized marijuana in 2008 virtually nobody in Massachusetts is being arrested for simply possessing or using marijuana anymore. Legalizing marijuana will not end the black market; in fact it is thriving in Colorado due to smuggling across state lines and the ease and profitability of growing plants hidden within the legal market. And, finally, the expected tax revenues are not likely to even cover the required regulatory and enforcement burdens that would be imposed on our state and municipal governments as well as substance abuse prevention and treatment — and would almost certainly not be a new source of funding for schools or the MBTA.
While some of the proponents of the ballot question are no doubt motivated by social justice concerns (notably Dick Evans), the money behind the campaign comes from the national Marijuana Policy Project which is motivated far more by making profits than fighting injustice.
The final argument that I would make against the ballot question is that this is the wrong time for Massachusetts to go down this road. We are just not ready. We are still struggling to fully implement medical marijuana. Law enforcement and our courts lack clear procedures and protocols for dealing with people driving under the influence of marijuana. We lack comprehensive and reliable baseline data on marijuana use in Massachusetts. And, we need to take strong action to reverse a troubling trend among young people who increasingly view marijuana as safe for them to consume. These are the issues that we need to focus on right now, rather than struggling to implement a badly flawed ballot question that is really about opening the door to a commercial, profit-driven marijuana industry. We should continue to learn from the experience in other states like Colorado and Washington. Although we generally pride ourselves in Massachusetts on being leaders, this is one issue where it’s far better to be a follower.