It’s Time to End Marijuana Prohibition in Massachusetts

Article first appeared in the Holliston Reporter

….

After reading the Holliston Reporter’s summary of the recent debate over marijuana policy at the Holliston Democratic Town Committee’s meeting (“To Pot or Not to Pot,” Aug. 15), I remain more convinced by the “Yes on 4” message. From a common sense, social justice, and economic standpoint, it is clear that regulating marijuana is far better than the current policy.

               At the meeting, the opponent of Question 4 focused on the threat of “Big Marijuana,” and claimed that the industry would target children just like “Big Tobacco.” While this may sound scary, it is important to remember that over the past couple of decades we have successfully reduced teen cigarette smoking to historic lows, according to the Monitoring the Future youth behavior study. Apparently, regulating tobacco and educating youth about its dangers — not criminalizing adult use — has been very effective in achieving public health objectives. Our current policy of marijuana prohibition, on the other hand, has not been at all effective in reducing the availability and use of marijuana among teenagers. According to that same study mentioned above, four out of five high school seniors report that marijuana is “fairly easy” or “very easy” to get.

My opponents argue that legalizing marijuana will make it easier for teenagers to get their hands on it. However, as mentioned above, it is already extremely easy for teens to get marijuana if they so choose. While legalizing marijuana won’t necessarily make it harder for teens to get, it certainly won’t make it easier. Also, when marijuana is bought legally from a store, the consumer knows exactly what strain it is, and is guaranteed that it is not laced with toxic substances or drugs. Therefore, if legal marijuana were to fall into a teenager’s hands, it is much safer considering it didn’t come from the streets where it could have been laced or otherwise altered.

The legality and existence of tobacco is hardly ever complained about in our community. However, when the prospect of legalizing and regulating marijuana is brought to the table, many people rise up in opposition. According to a study from the University of California-San Francisco, it is scientifically proven that tobacco is much more harmful to the lungs than marijuana. Another study published in Scientific Reports reveals that marijuana has the lowest risk of death when compared to other drugs used recreationally, including alcohol and nicotine. According to the CDC, “cigarette smoking is responsible for more than 480,000 deaths per year in the United States”. However, when the NIH released their report on overdose deaths in 2015, not one overdose death was reported from marijuana. This proves that it is impossible to fatally overdose on marijuana. Therefore, when people support the legality of tobacco, especially cigarettes, but wholeheartedly oppose the legalization of marijuana, it somewhat perplexes me. I can understand the opinion of keeping the status quo, and that there has been a cultural taboo on marijuana for years. Marijuana was federally outlawed by the “Marihuana Tax Act of 1937”, but had been illegal in many states prior to that year. However, tobacco has always been legal in the United States, and cigarette smoking was a norm just a few generations back. The legality of tobacco has misled people to think that tobacco is less harmful than marijuana, even though that is far from the truth. These studies prove that our drug laws are flawed. Therefore, I present Holliston voters with these facts. The current purchasing age for tobacco in Holliston is 18, while under laws passed through Question 4, the purchasing age for marijuana would be 21. The prospective laws in Question 4 also strictly prohibit marijuana use in public, while current tobacco laws prevent no such use. Tobacco smokers are currently allowed to light up a cigarette in our streets, increasing the risk of secondhand smoke to the rest of us, especially children. Question 4 makes sure that those who choose to refrain from marijuana are never exposed to it in public.

The same argument can be made against the legality of alcohol. Alcohol poisoning causes 2,200 deaths in the US each year according to the CDC. This stat again shows that there are legal drugs that have far more overdose deaths than marijuana. MADD statistics show that “teen alcohol use kills 4,700 people each year – that’s more than all illegal drugs combined.” Yet the support for alcohol prohibition is astoundingly smaller than the support for our current marijuana prohibition.

My opponents say that although marijuana cannot directly lead to death from overdose, it can lead to deaths indirectly. This is a true statement, however, alcohol use is responsible for overdose and indirect deaths. In fact, alcohol related deaths are responsible for 88,000 deaths each year in the US according to the NIH. If my opponents want to argue the indirect causes of death from marijuana, but support the legality of alcohol, I will simply ask them how that is not a contradiction. Question 4 explicitly states that “it will remain entirely illegal to drive under the influence of marijuana, and employers will be able to maintain all current employment drug use policies.”

Furthermore, the opponent’s argument overlooked the fact that we already have a “marijuana industry” — it just exists in the shadows where we have no oversight or control. Legitimate marijuana businesses are obliged to follow laws and the rules we set up. Simply put, they are accountable to us. In the illicit marijuana industry, dealers have no incentive to ensure the safety of their product; no incentive not to sell other illegal drugs like heroin alongside marijuana; and no incentive not to sell to children. Illegal dealers are simply not held accountable to us.

Since this underground marijuana industry already exists, it makes complete sense that we make this a legal, regulated industry. As a result of regulating and taxing marijuana, Massachusetts will generate an estimated $100 million in additional revenue. This revenue can be put toward crucial programs in our state, especially education and transportation. Also, law enforcement will no longer waste resources on petty marijuana crimes, thus freeing up more time and money to focus on the dangerous crimes that plague our state’s communities, such as murder, rape, and DUI (marijuana-related included).

A regulated marijuana industry will also boost Massachusetts’ economy as it has done in Colorado. New businesses and new jobs from legal marijuana will have many positive ripple effects that strengthen the economy. This will create legal and safe jobs for many people in Massachusetts, including current dealers. Regulating marijuana simply takes it off the streets where it is dangerous, and has it sold by government-regulated stores that have to follow the same health codes and business policies that any other store does.

Approving Question 4 will also end a socially unjust and racially discriminatory policy.  A study from the ACLU found that black citizens are nearly four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, despite virtually identical usage rates among the two groups. Legalizing marijuana prevents this unjust discrimination from being carried out against minorities possessing marijuana.

For individuals who need marijuana for medical purposes, it can still be difficult to access and be unaffordable under the existing medical marijuana law even though medical marijuana passed on the ballot four years ago. Out of 36,000 physicians in Massachusetts, only 155 are certified to issue medical marijuana cards, according to state records. Passage of Question 4 allows doctors and patients to make important healthcare decisions without fear of committing a criminal act.

For me, this issue boils down to a simple question: do we want to pretend that marijuana doesn’t exist and refuse to regulate it, or do we want to have more control and impose sensible regulations on the production and sale of marijuana to better protect public health and safety? The answer to me is clear. Whether one loves marijuana or hates it, we have to accept that it exists and is widely used in society. From a public policy standpoint, regulating marijuana makes far more sense than continuing the failed policy we have in place now.

Please visit https://www.regulatemassachusetts.org/ for more information and vote YES on Question 4 this November.