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Opinion | Dante ramos

Will Mass. legalize marijuana before happy hour?

Joyce Hesselberth for The Boston Globe

In Massachusetts, where a restaurant can sell half-price munchies but not half-price drinks, you can be sure marijuana will be legal under state law long before happy hour ever is.

In much of the country, low-cost beers in the early evening are a mainstay of office bonding — perhaps even the unsung lubricant of a schmoozy new economy. In Massachusetts, by contrast, the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission banned daily or hourly drink discounts in 1984 in an effort to stem drunken driving, and the most recent effort in the Legislature to modify the restriction went nowhere.

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In 2011, as Beacon Hill made it clear that casinos in Massachusetts would be able to offer free booze and other drink promotions, state Senator Robert Hedlund proposed to allow bars and restaurants to follow the same standards. In competing with gambling establishments, he argued, restaurants shouldn’t be hamstrung by archaic rules.

But once it became known as a happy hour law, Hedlund’s proposal was done for. Protesters, including a drunken-driving victim with one leg, showed up at a restaurant the Weymouth Republican co-owns. Witnesses, including some high-profile restaurateurs, blasted the idea in public hearings. Still sore about the episode, Hedlund told me recently he’ll “never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever” answer a question about happy hour again.

Yet somehow, in this same Massachusetts, marijuana is rapidly ascendant, thanks to the state’s voter-initiative process. In the past six years, voters approved two ballot questions on pot. A 2012 measure allowed its use as medicine. A measure four years earlier removed criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana.

Indeed, now that a pot citation is the equivalent of a parking ticket, you literally can smell the difference. Sure, drinking wine on restaurant patios or sidewalks may still be subject to long negotiations with neighbors, and smoking cigarettes may now be banned in Boston’s public parks. But that other funny odor you detect across the city is exactly what you think it is: In public in Massachusetts, a lot of people are smoking a lot of weed.

The differing prospects of happy hour and marijuana speak volumes about the political and
cultural climate in Massachusetts. While the state is unusually responsive to sweeping social movements — like those for universal health care, same-sex marriage, and, I’d argue, marijuana liberalization — it’s downright ornery about incremental changes to settled laws, especially those involving alcohol.

Not everyone raising public-health arguments is doing so for public-spirited reasons.

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It’s no wonder marijuana-reform advocates, once seen as an amusing fringe group, are laying the groundwork here for a ballot question on outright legalization. Colorado and Washington state have passed such measures, and it would be easy to frame a campaign in ways that appeal to Massachusetts voters: Colorado is expecting an extra $100 million in tax revenue a year; giving dedicated stoners access to a legitimate supply diverts profits from murderous drug cartels; prosecuting anyone over a drug that today’s middle-class parents once smoked with abandon is an invitation to unequal treatment by police. For dedicated liberals and libertarians alike, a vote to legalize weed may feel like a vote for a much larger cause.

Nudging back laws on alcohol in Massachusetts inspires far less idealism, in part because the state has been wrangling over the issue for much longer. According to Stephanie Schorow, author of “Drinking Boston: A History of the City and Its Spirits,” the Legislature in 1838 passed a law forbidding the sale of alcohol in quantities less than 15 gallons; the assumption was that no one had the money to buy or transport that much booze. Wrong! Widely ridiculed as a do-gooder law run amok, the rule was soon repealed, Schorow says.

But in subsequent years, Massachusetts still proceeded on two tracks: “We want to give you personal freedom,” as Schorow puts it, “but we want to build a better society.” That latter mindset — a high-minded desire to stamp out public-health menaces — led to subsequent flirtations with prohibition, the emergence of dry towns, and Byzantine rules on licensing and zoning of liquor establishments that still persist today. And, of course, to the happy hour ban.

The happy hour law, to be sure, isn’t a kooky failure like the 15-gallon rule. Nor is it a grievous injustice; some establishments have simply responded by selling discounted appetizers. But is that enough to keep the ban on the books for all time? After all, the current law doesn’t stop an unscrupulous bar owner from selling 50-cent shots of rotgut tequila to college seniors seven nights a week. The logic of the happy hour ban has been undermined by declining driving rates; by a shift toward denser, pedestrian-oriented urban centers; and, above all, by the gradual ratcheting up of criminal penalties for, and social disapproval of, drunken driving.

Yet slow, steady changes like these are harder for lawmakers and voters to perceive than, say, a gathering storm of pro-pot sentiment. Regardless of the circumstances, no lawmaker is eager to defy highway-safety advocates — often, drunken-driving victims or their loved ones — who believe fervently in the existing happy hour rules.

Then again, not everyone raising public-health arguments is doing so for public-spirited reasons. In 2006, when grocery stores pushed a ballot question expanding wine sales, the opposition campaign featured a worried Somerville police chief and fixated on underage drinking — but the effort was largely funded by established alcohol retailers and wholesalers who were wary of new competition. The measure failed; Bay Staters’ high-minded willingness to stamp out public-health menaces had a convenient outcome for private commercial interests.

The happy hour law, too, has created its own constituency: profitable bar and restaurant owners eager to protect their margins. Some will admit they’d rather not see newcomers undercut their prices on booze. But usually, their objections are expressed more altruistically: Among the witnesses at an August 2012 hearing was Steve DiFillippo, the chef and CEO of the mini-chain Davio’s, who recalled the rowdy happy hours of his college years and declared that “there’s only reason people go to happy hour, and that’s to get drunk.”

Really? As Hedlund, the state senator, notes, DiFillippo’s own Philadelphia location offers a happy hour with discounted drinks.

In a recent interview, DiFillippo said he’s only doing what the Philly market requires, and that it’s misleading to compare the two cities. “It’s just different there,” he said. “It’s not Boston.” But other than the happy hour ban, the two dense, historic cities have plenty in common. Indeed, DiFillippo’s happy hour there could be a model in key ways: It’s not a chug-a-lug contest; it’s in dense Center City, in a location with lots of foot traffic and without free parking.

For its part, Boston could stand to ease up on those most inconvenienced by the happy-hour ban: upstart urban restaurateurs seeking new customers, genial city dwellers who like meeting up with friends over a glass of wine before walking home from work. In any case, Massachusetts’ willingness to accommodate highly controversial social changes makes its policies on alcohol look especially odd: If the Legislature hadn’t repealed an obscure blue law in 2011, there would have been years in which you could marry your same-sex partner on Dec. 26 but not buy champagne to celebrate afterward. Even today, you can’t buy the celebratory bubbly online and have it shipped to your home.

Similarly, if you want to set up a wine store — or almost anything else — in the Back Bay, you normally spend months making nice with neighbors and kissing up to city officials; yet a medical marijuana dispensary was recently approved for a state license to operate in the neighborhood, with surprisingly little scrutiny.

It’s to the Commonwealth’s credit that its laws can at least accommodate major shifts in public sentiment. But as for anything short of that, well, never mind; the old rules stay on the books.

Dante Ramos can be reached at dante.ramos@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @danteramos.

Correction: Because of an editing error, Joyce Hesselberth’s name was misspelled in a previous version of this article.

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