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Shirley Leung

On Question 4, it’s the wrong time and the wrong bill to legalize marijuana

As you head to the polls on Tuesday, here’s one last puff from me on Question 4.

Regular readers already know that I am opposed to the statewide ballot measure, which would legalize recreational use of marijuana. I don’t like it because I fear the costs will outweigh the benefits, in particular the impact on our state budget, which already is stitched together with Band-Aids.

I got all nerdy on you worrying about the tax rate in the ballot question and how it would likely not generate enough money to cover the infrastructure needed to regulate pot, from creating an oversight commission to hiring inspectors.


Now a different side of me wants to make an appeal: the child of the ’80s who grew up with Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” to drugs seared in my brain. Yes, illegal drugs still scare me, and in the middle of a deadly opioid epidemic, it’s hard to accept that this is the right thing to do now.

What can be even more confounding is that both supporters and opponents look to Colorado as reasons why we should vote for — or against — Question 4. Colorado became the first state in the country to legalize recreational marijuana in 2014, also by ballot question.

Dueling interpretations of marijuana’s impact is enough to put everyone in a haze.

A study by the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area says that marijuana-related traffic deaths in Colorado increased 62 percent after recreational marijuana was legalized. The group – composed of federal, state, and local officials -- indicated that marijuana use by teens has risen 20 percent since legalization, while nationally use dropped 4 percent during the same time.

But findings by the Drug Policy Alliance, which supports marijuana law reform, issued a report in October titled “So Far, So Good.” On traffic incidents related to marijuana, the group points out that the number of driving under the influence citations issued by the Colorado State Patrol declined during the first year of legal sales of marijuana compared with the previous year. (More recent numbers, however, indicate that marijuana-related DUIs are up for 2016.)


On youth, a survey of 17,000 middle and high schools students conducted by Colorado health officials found that the number reporting they had used marijuana in the last 30 days remained at about 21 percent -- unchanged from 2013. In fact, the number of youth using marijuana was actually higher in 2009, at 25 percent.

Social justice has been a big part of the push to legalize recreational use, but another study indicates that a disproportionate number of minorities continued to be arrested for pot offenses. It still remains a crime in Colorado to consume marijuana in public or sell the drug on the black market. Still, arrest rates related to marijuana remain more than twice as high for blacks.

In Massachusetts, where voters decriminalized possession of small amounts of pot in 2008, total arrests dropped 84 percent between 2008 and 2014, according to a recent report by the American Civil Liberties Union. Yet disparities remain with blacks being arrested at three times the rate of whites.

What are we to believe?

To me, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper acts as the tie breaker. He was recently on “60 Minutes” talking about the effects of legalized marijuana.


“No one can argue the old system wasn’t a disaster,” he told the show. “We had an old system where kids had open access to marijuana and everything was black market. There was no regulation. There was all illegal activity.”

But when asked what advice he would give to the five states that have ballot initiatives to legalize marijuana, Hickenlooper urged a go slow approach, saying there isn’t enough data to draw any conclusions about teen use or DUIs.

“We don’t see it yet, but the data is not perfect,” he said. “And we don’t have enough data yet to make that decision.”

Hickenlooper initially opposed legalization, but now thinks the state might fare OK. Still, he is not exactly the movement’s biggest fan.

“I feel confident enough now that I’m not trying to turn the clock back,” said the governor. “But I’m not so confident that I’m telling the other states, ‘Yeah, go for it. This is gonna be – this is a slam dunk.’”

One community in Colorado already wants a do-over. The Colorado law left it up to individual communities to decide whether they wanted to allow retail marijuana businesses. On Tuesday, the people of Pueblo — after welcoming the marijuana industry — will vote on a ballot measure to ban those businesses.

While my colleagues on the Globe editorial board are in favor of Question 4, the editorial board of the Colorado Springs Gazette is urging Pueblo residents to run marijuana businesses out of town by Oct. 31, 2017.


“Pueblo is a grand city, wise and mature, and an important element of Colorado’s character, image and charm,” according to the Gazette editorial. “A recreational drug has not helped the community through this tough time and might be making things worse. Consider stopping the commercial promotion of getting stoned at the potential cost of success in life.”

In Massachusetts, there will be a time when we reform marijuana laws. But now is not the right time, and this is not the right legislation to fix our policy on pot.

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.