WL – A Reading-based advocacy grouped is seeking to get a question on the ballot for a 2016 vote that would legalize the recreational use of cannabis in Massachusetts.
Bill Downing, leader of Bay State Repeal, has been advocating for the positive opportunities brought by legalizing marijuana since 1989. He thinks that the time is fast approaching where the drug will be accepted and taxed like other mind-altering substances, namely alcohol and tobacco.
Backed financially by the
Marijuana Policy Project, which has pledged $1.8 million for a campaign to draw up a piece of legislation to give to the attorney general, Bay State Repeal hopes to raise enough money and awareness of its own to make a major impact in just two years.
“When I started in 1989 doing this, it did seem like a Star Trek future. But now in 2014, it seems like before my kids graduate college, this is going to happen,” Downing said.
Although the days of “Reefer Madness” and the perception of marijuana being as dangerous as cocaine or heroin are long gone, the battle for widespread recreational legalization is much farther from a unanimous decision. About 54 percent of Americans feel that marijuana should be legal, according to a Pew Research poll.
State Sen. Jason Lewis, D-Winchester, has stated that he would not support such a ballot question in 2016. He cites a growing amount of scientific evidence that shows marijuana use harms cognitive growth and brain function in young adults and teenagers.
“I worry that if we were to legalize it, it would send a message to young people that it’s not harmful and they don’t need to be concerned about using marijuana. I think that’s not the road that we want to go down in the state,” Lewis said.
Addressing Lewis’s point on marijuana use in the younger generation, Downing was adamant in his defense. He said activists do not intend for cannabis to fall into the hands of young people. He also noted that any laws would stringent regulations to prevent that.
“The other thing is that the prohibition has been completely ineffective in keeping marijuana out of the hands of children,” Downing added. “What, are we going to continue to do the same thing over and over again and expect a different result? That’s Einstein’s definition of insanity. We’ve been trying that same tactic here in Massachusetts since 1913; it’s been 101 years.”
Downing believes that many of the reasons for the hesitancy to completely legalize the drug are not based in sound logic. He said cannabis is “safer than aspirin.”
Another argument used by anti-cannabis advocates is that the sudden legality of marijuana would result in a far higher number of people who use the drug, causing unwanted side effects in society. But Downing doesn’t agree with this either.
“Virtually anybody who wants to get marijuana now, even while it’s prohibited, can get it already,” he said. “So the idea that all of these people are now all of the sudden start smoking marijuana I think is very unrealistic.”
One of Downing’s main points of argument regards the black market, which is a general term that encompasses all production, distribution, and sales of illicit substances, such as marijuana.
“Not only are you taking away consumer dollars from the above ground, legitimate economy and throwing them into the underground market, the other bad half is who you’re giving it to on the other end,” he said. “That money that is disappearing from our legitimate economy is going into the hands of some of the most dangerous people in the world.”
This is also why Bay State Repeal cautions against the implementation of extremely high taxes if marijuana is eventually legalized.
“If you tax this stuff too heavily, then people are going to continue what they’re doing now; which is buying it on the black market and growing it themselves,” Downing said.
Recreational marijuana does not have the same support as medical marijuana, which is now legal in 23 states plus the District of Columbia. But Colorado and Washington legalization of recreational marijuana back in 2012 could provide a litmus test for changing that view. Lewis said he is inclined to wait for more data to emerge from those two states before making Massachusetts the third state to legalize.
Meanwhile, activists like Bill Downing are gearing up for a legislative bout with large implications for the state of Massachusetts. He thinks the giving citizens the opportunity to vote for such a law is a fight worth fighting, and one that is at the core of American values.
“It tells the people that they have the ability to rule their own destiny,” he said. “When the government doesn’t reflect the goals or the general values of the people, the time has surely come for the laws to fit the times.”