In recent weeks and months, the issue of marijuana legalization has become the focus of debate on Beacon Hill. In November, Massachusetts voters will likely vote on a referendum that would legalize the use, cultivation, and distribution of marijuana, and most of the Commonwealth’s political leadership is arraying itself against the measure. Most notably, Governor Charlie D. Baker '79, Attorney General Maura T. Healey '92, and Boston Mayor Marty J. Walsh co-authored an op-ed in the Boston Globe arguing against legalization, while a special committee of the state senate released a report two weeks ago that argues for the imposition of certain limits if marijuana is legalized.
Though we recognize that full legalization of marijuana presents some thorny issues for lawmakers to address, it is difficult to say the same for further decriminalizing cannabis possession. Despite a 2008 referendum decriminalizing possession of one ounce or less of the drug, offenders are still subject to civil penalties, and about one thousand people are arrested each year for possession of larger amounts. These arrests are unnecessary, diverting law enforcement resources from serious crimes and perpetuating a punitive suite of drug policies that make little sense given efforts to reduce the prison population and move away from law enforcement centered solutions to drug crimes. Continuing to phase out penalties for possession of marijuana would be a logical extension of current policy.
Despite the clear benefits of further decriminalization, the case for full legalization is not as clear-cut. Eight state senators who visited Colorado in January to assess that state’s experience brought back several concerns about a legalized marijuana industry and its public health implications for which there are no immediately obvious answers. For example, law enforcement has struggled to develop clear protocols for identifying drivers who are under the influence of marijuana, since simple tools akin to breathalyzers do not yet exist. They also struggle to identify the potency of edible marijuana products.
These concerns deserve a full and public airing before Massachusetts voters make a final decision on legalization. Just because these issues exist, however, does not mean that legalization presents insuperable hurdles. As we learn more about the effects of legalization, more and better steps can be taken to minimize its adverse consequences, in the same way that new methods have been developed to combat alcohol abuse by minors and drunk driving. In particular, lawmakers should be prepared for the immediate implementation of a comprehensive regulatory regime should the legalization referendum pass. These regulations could follow the general outlines of the special committee report issued earlier this month, which called for a clear definition of impaired driving and better warning labels on marijuana products, and should also include resources for developing enforcement techniques funded through taxes on the industry.
Ultimately, Massachusetts has a unique opportunity to engage in a full-fledged debate based on the experiences of states like Colorado. The November referendum should serve as a timely occasion to develop both a better understanding of the impacts of legalized marijuana and a model set of laws and regulations for this pressing public health and criminal justice issue.
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