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The Podium

Legalize marijuana

As irregularities in the medical marijuana program materialize into a potential scandal, eyes turn to Governor Patrick to do something. Instead of a dilemma, he faces a remarkable opportunity.

Certainly he will wait until the Department of Public Health completes its review process and releases the scoring sheets for all applications. That will draw close scrutiny by applicants, the media, and local officials, and produce howls or kudos as merited. If no systemic improprieties are revealed, then individual complaints can be dealt with, the dispensary licensing can move forward, and the governor can commend the DPH for a job well done.

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If, however, the selection process is proved seriously flawed, he will have to act.

He could invoke the standard response: express deep disappointment, fire somebody, appoint experts to conduct a thorough review, even hit the reset button, as House Speaker DeLeo has suggested. This course would be bad news for patients suffering debilitating conditions, forced to the street to obtain their medicine while dispensaries are put on hold indefinitely, but from the perspective of conventional political wisdom it’s splendid, as the clock will run on his term before the issue comes up again. His record will not be tainted by allowing legal marijuana to take root in the Commonwealth during his watch.

Alternatively, he could acknowledge that conventional wisdom is flatly wrong, and that people have already seen past a century of anti-marijuana propaganda.

Massachusetts solidly supports marijuana reform. Voters passed decriminalization in 2008 and medical marijuana in 2012.

In 2012, Colorado and Washington voters repealed their marijuana prohibition laws, opting instead to regulate and tax the substance. Alaska and Oregon are expected to follow in November. A Massachusetts legalization initiative is in the works for 2016.

Colorado’s licensed pot shops opened Jan. 1. The Colorado Department of Revenue will soon officially report January sales and the tax revenues collected for the month. More importantly, the impact of the new law on the public health, public safety, and the economy will become evident. If, as expected, non-medical legalization creates new jobs, new industries, and significant new revenues, all with no visible cost to the public, why shouldn’t Massachusetts do it even better?

The solution to the medical marijuana mess is to leapfrog over it. Legalize marijuana, lliberating the 100 medical marijuana applicants, entrepreneurs who developed and presented thorough business plans (and paid $30,000 application fees) to build production, processing, and distribution facilities. Allow for additional licenses later, to meet market demand. Transfer regulatory authority from the DPH to the DOR. Scoop up new tax revenues without raising anyone’s taxes.

How much? Colorado’s governor anticipates $135 million in new sales taxes for 2014.

President Obama recently took the bold step of acknowledging that marijuana was no more dangerous than alcohol, a proposition to which no dissent was heard. The Department of Justice has given states a conditional green light for regulated sales to adults. Even the banking rules are being relaxed to accommodate the new industry.

Now it’s the governor’s turn for a bold step. Instead of kicking the can, waiting for the voters to legalize marijuana in 2016, he can do it now and do it right.

As for whether marijuana should be legalized, a local police chief recently put it succinctly: “That ship has sailed.” Whether its departure has been noticed on Beacon Hill isn’t yet clear.

Richard M. Evans, a Northampton attorney, is the author of a proposed law to regulate and tax the cannabis industry. He has represented several applicants for medical marijuana dispensary licenses.
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