How Soon Until Massachusetts Legalizes Marijuana?

Advocates for full-scale legalization say efforts might take off sooner than you think.

Photo via Flickr

The Marijuana Policy Project announced this week that Massachusetts lawmakers, as well as those in a few other New England states, are preparing to introduce new legislation that would legalize recreational weed use, raising the question: how long can we expect to wait after passage of the  medical marijuana initiative in Massachusetts before efforts for full legalization really take off? Activists we spoke with said we probably shouldn’t be surprised at a quick turnaround after this month’s election.

In Massachusetts, the initiative to legalize medical marijuana passed with overwhelming support — 63 percent of voters cast their ballots in favor of legalization, while just 37 percent voted against it — allowing the Bay State to join the ranks of the 17 other states (and the District of Columbia) where marijuana is legal for medical use.

Although marijuana reform didn’t pass in many places where it was on the ballot this election season, it made huge gains in others. In Colorado and Washington, voters pushed the ballot even further, and approved the legalization of its recreational use.

“It’s the best election we’ve had since prohibition began,” says Morgan Fox, a representative from the Marijuana Policy Project, a DC-based lobbying firm seeking the legalization of medical and non-medical marijuana. “And we’re only going to see continued improvement in our marijuana laws as more people become comfortable with sensible reform.”

Until now, people have only been exposed to negative stories about marijuana, says Bill Downing, treasurer of the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition (MassCann). “Whenever they see it in the newspapers, it’s because some drug dealer was arrested or shot in a parking lot.” We can expect the new legislation “to normalize attitudes toward cannabis,” he says. A whole new set of stories will be out. “People’s ideas are going to change when they hear about old Mrs. Perty at the end of the street— who’s suffering from rheumatoid arthritis— and who finds that medical cannabis can help her control her symptoms,” said Downing.

But sympathy for the medical marijuana issue does not necessarily create support for full-scale legalization.

“There’s a huge dichotomy between medical and non-medical marijuana,” Fox notes. Note, for instance, that of the 18 states in which medical marijuana is legal, initiatives to legalize its recreational use have only made it on the ballot in four.  Of those four states, the initiatives have only been successful in two.  And many of the advocates that pushed for medical marijuana in Massachusetts — like the ACLU and the Massachusetts Patient Advocacy Alliance — aren’t interested in anything beyond giving physicians the right to prescribe pot to their suffering patients, as Casey Lyons noted in our October cover story.

That doesn’t necessarily mean reform will be as slow here. Reform groups like MassCann — who see legalization as the end goal of the movement — are rapidly gaining momentum. In just six years, they’ve succeeded in their initiatives to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana, and to legalize its medical use.

“All of this,” said Downing, “is setting the stage for the regulated adult use of marijuana.”

Downing cited the results of two public policy questions — which were included on the ballot in six of Massachusetts’s 10 congressional districts — as evidence. 63 percent of respondents voted for the state to end the prohibition of marijuana in the three districts where the question was asked. And in three other districts, 73 percent of respondents voted for the state to regulate and tax marijuana in the same manner as alcohol. The responses of absentee ballots are still being counted, Downing noted, so the official results are still subject to change. But over 100,000 responses have been recorded so far, and they have been positive.

The poll results are going to attract reform-minded donors with deep pockets from across the country — donors who are going to see that there’s more existing support for reform in Massachusetts than in other states, Downing says, and who are going to believe that if they ran an initiative in Massachusetts, they would win.

Massachusetts’s voters can expect to see an initiative on the ballot to end prohibition in 2016, said Downing. This means the day is rapidly approaching when Massachusetts’s voters will have to decide in favor of the widespread legalization of marijuana, or to let the steps that reformers have taken toward that goal in the last six years go up in smoke.