William Delahunt’s Big, Bad Marijuana Flip-Flop

The former U.S. Congressman and Norfolk County D.A. is now the biggest medical marijuana dealer in Massachusetts to have ever put people behind bars for using his new product.

Photo via AP

Photo via AP

The recipients of the first medical marijuana dispensary licenses in Massachusetts were announced last week by the Department of Public Health, but even before the news came out, critics were crying foul play. Former U.S. Congressman and longtime Norfolk County District Attorney William Delahunt—now president of a company called Medical Marijuana of Massachusetts—had applied for three of just 35 licenses that can be awarded by the state. No stranger to accusations of underhanded deals, Delahunt was accused by the Massachusetts Republican Party of leveraging his relationship with DPH Commissioner Cheryl Bartlett—who once donated money to his PAC.

Then, when the first group of 20 licensees was announced and Delahunt’s group was awarded all three of the licenses it sought, Massachusetts Republicans lashed out again. “The public cannot have faith in the decisions made by the Department of Public Health because of the apparent conflict of interest for Commissioner Bartlett and the secrecy surrounding the awarding of licenses,” wrote MassGOP executive director Rob Cunningham. (A full list of the licensees and an explanation behind the application process can be read here.)

Whether or not you think Cunningham has a point, you don’t need to look that deep into the licensing process to come away with a bad taste in your mouth. Let’s begin with the very idea that Delahunt, the District Attorney for Norfolk County from 1976 to 1996—a man whose job it was, for decades, to arrest and prosecute citizens for the possession and sale of marijuana—now has three state-issued licenses to deal weed. On its face, this is a perversion so absurd it’s practically comical. It’s so unprecedentedly offensive, it’s hard to find a comparison. It’s as if a local MADD chapter  scooped up a suddenly vacated liquor license. Or PETA availed itself of loosened food truck restrictions to operate a sausage stand, maybe. How opportunistic is it? It’s like, well, spending years opposing the Cape Wind project, then earmarking 1.7 million in federal money to support a wind-energy project in Hull, and then—after leaving office—conspiring to have your lobbying firm reap heavy consulting fees from the same project you formerly opposed but just earmarked federal funds for. That’s exactly what Delahunt did—or at least planned to do, until the New York Times pointed out the brazenness of the scheme, and the Globe quoted experts calling the deal a “self-made golden parachute.” Only then did the former Congressman have a sudden change of heart, announcing that he was declining to take the town’s money.

You can tell this is not Delahunt’s first rodeo. According to a Herald story from earlier this year, Delahunt, who once pledged to ‘hit [marijuana dealers] where it hurts’ in the ‘90s, now says the difference is that, “They weren’t using it then for medicinal purposes” back then.

“No one has ever died of a marijuana overdose,” Delahunt said recently. No, but plenty have had their lives ruined by it, specifically because of the overreaching actions of prosecutors and lawmakers like Delahunt, who—now noticing that the political winds are shifting—aren’t simply content to say they were wrong on pot all along. They also want to get paid. Even in a state like Massachusetts, where dispensaries are required to be structured as non-profits, there’s lots of money to be made. Medical marijuana dispensary revenues per year can run from anywhere between a couple hundred thousand dollars, to tens of millions on the high end. Changing your tune on pot looks like a very lucrative move.

To be clear: Delahunt wasn’t the only former lawmaker or law enforcement hypocrite to get in line. Other applicants included former state senator Brian P. Lees, whose group was granted a license, and former Worcester County sheriff Guy Glodis, whose application was denied. But Delahunt alone holds the distinction of now being the biggest medical marijuana dealer in the state to have ever put thousands of people behind bars for using his new product.

How many people did Delahunt lock up for peddling the weed he’s now dealing? Exact numbers are hard to come by. The current Norfolk District Attorney’s Office and the Quincy District Court Clerk’s office said they don’t keep those sorts of specific arrest records, or don’t have access to them. But by combing through the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting data—with a big assist from data provided by nationally renowned marijuana activist Jon Gettman—we can make a back-of-the-napkin estimate. From 1985 to 1996 (Delahunt’s last year as DA), 6,381 people were arrested for marijuana-related offenses, with 5,459 of them for mere possession. If we assume a comparable pattern for the decade prior, during which marijuana arrests rates maintained roughly the same pace nationwide, that’s somewhere around 10,000 people who had their lives upended under Delahunt’s authority for merely using the product he wants to cash in on.

Of course, Delahunt’s authority is exactly what the state’s new medical-marijuana regime has been craving. Our peculiar Puritanical application of medical marijuana follows the example of Rhode Island before us: the trick is to have “upstanding” citizens on the boards of medical marijuana dispensaries as a means to soften their image and make them more palatable to the communities. After all, if a good guy like Delahunt is on board, how bad can these demon weed factories be?

Such is the strangeness of this particular moment that even Delahunt’s former enemies—the very champions of marijuana legalization who defended the practice that Delahunt prosecuted for so many years—won’t outright condemn his about-face. Why? Because they, too, are hungry for the legitimization that Delahunt’s flip-flop has brought to the industry. “There’s no doubt one can be fairly jaded in seeing people who spent a lot of time enforcing marijuana prohibition like he did now put their fingers up to the political winds,” says Allen St. Pierre, executive director of NORML. “Not even for moral reasons, but for purely economic ones, championing causes that they never championed when they had the reigns of power in their hands.”

But, St. Pierre says, it’s also a sign of progress. “When our traditional opponents come to realize they were wrong, we should embrace that and not be punitive to them. As much as that might be fun and feel good on visceral level, it’s different on a political level.” In his 20 years at NORML, he’s seen many politicians come and go who once favored prohibition, but have now changed their tune. “One has to see that as a good thing.”

Perhaps, but as the moralists and scolds who’ve long cautioned against the use of marijuana always told us, getting yourself wrapped up in the drug game is bad news. You never know what kind of unsavory characters you going to end up doing business with.