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Mass. activists push to fully legalize marijuana

BOSTON (AP) — Pro-marijuana activists in Massachusetts have already succeeded in paving the way for dozens of medical marijuana dispensaries and decriminalizing possession of small amounts of the drug.

Now many of those same activists have set their sights on the full legalization of marijuana for adults, effectively putting the drug on a par with alcohol and cigarettes.

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And those activists — as they have in the past — are again hoping to make their case directly to voters.

The group Bay State Repeal says it’s planning to put the proposal on the state’s 2016 ballot. The group is first planning to test different versions of the measure by placing nonbinding referendum questions on next year’s ballot in about a dozen state representative districts.

Those nonbinding questions are intended to gauge voter support for possible variations of the final, binding question.

Bill Downing, a member of Bay State Repeal, said the state should legalize marijuana for many reasons, especially since the use of marijuana no longer carries the stigma it once did and many people smoke the drug despite laws against it.

‘‘That’s the problem with the marijuana laws,’’ Downing said. ‘‘There’s no moral impact anymore because the laws don’t reflect our common values.’’

The activists have some reason to be hopeful. Not only have Massachusetts voters twice supported past efforts to ease restrictions on marijuana, but other states and cities have also recently moved toward lifting prohibitions on the drug.

Last year, voters made Washington and Colorado the first states to legalize the sale of taxed marijuana to adults over 21 at state-licensed stores.

This month, voters in Portland, Maine, overwhelmingly passed a question making it legal for adults 21 and over to possess up to 2½ ounces of pot but not purchase, sell or use it in public.

In 2008, Massachusetts voters approved a ballot question decriminalizing possession of up to an ounce of pot, making it instead a civil offense punishable by a $100 fine. Some Massachusetts towns have given up trying to enforce the law, however, saying it has too many loopholes.

Not everyone thinks legalizing marijuana is a good idea.

Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett says marijuana use can lead young people to harder drugs and other harmful behaviors.

‘‘I’m not saying everyone who tries marijuana becomes a heroin addict, but the medical information is irrefutable that kids who start smoking marijuana are more likely to have substance abuse problems as adults,’’ said Blodgett, who also serves as president of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association.

Blodgett said one unintended consequence of the decriminalization law in Massachusetts is that it’s harder to get young people into treatment and diversion programs because they can’t be arrested for possession of the drug. He said many private health insurance plans don’t cover drug treatment.

‘‘Unless and until we have treatment-on-demand, we shouldn’t be talking about legalizing marijuana or any other drugs,’’ Blodgett said.

Downing rejected the notion that marijuana is a gateway to harder drugs and said the ballot question would restrict the sale of marijuana to adults.

‘‘This isn’t about getting pot for kids,’’ he said. ‘‘No one on my side says we are getting marijuana for kids.’’

When asked recently about the push to legalize marijuana in Massachusetts, Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick declined to offer an opinion.

There are potential legal troubles that come when states legalize marijuana, including the fact that state legalization doesn’t remove risk from an industry that still violates federal drug law.

Last year, Massachusetts overwhelmingly approved a ballot question allowing for up to 35 medical marijuana dispensaries around the state. State health officials last week released a list of the 100 applicants that are seeking dispensary licenses. They said they hope to award the licenses early next year.

Backers of that question benefited from the deep pockets of Ohio billionaire Peter Lewis, who has funded marijuana initiatives in states around the country and served as chairman of the board of the auto insurer Progressive Corp. Lewis, who almost entirely bankrolled the Massachusetts medical marijuana question, died Saturday at 80.

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