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Just say yes (to legalizing recreational marijuana)

Massachusetts can either make it happen now and get the law right, or wait and get it wrong.

Shutterstock/Eldad Carin

Just say no!

Nancy Reagan first uttered her unforgettable anti-drug mantra in 1984. More than three decades later, most of our state leaders seem to be following the former first lady’s lead. But while high-level, bipartisan embrace of a hard line on, say, the deadly opioid epidemic makes obvious sense, top officials’ please-keep-off-the-grass consensus on marijuana is head-in-the-sand stuff.

This matters because Massachusetts is likely to be deciding whether to join the District of Columbia and four states (Colorado, Washington, Alaska, and Oregon) in legalizing recreational use. If the necessary signatures are collected, the question would be on the November 2016 ballot. A few legislators are even trying to leapfrog direct democracy by making it legal the old-fashioned way, on Beacon Hill.


But with the governor, attorney general, district attorneys, and Boston’s mayor so far just saying no in unison, the odds of that are slightly less than the T running on time in snow — or sunshine, for that matter.

Last month on my radio show, the governor was unequivocal in his stance on outright legalization: “I oppose it and will always oppose it.” At the same time, he said he sees the effort initiated by the Senate president (who says he is currently agnostic on the issue) to study “the practical real-life experience” of first-in-the-nation Colorado “incredibly valuable.” On that, I assume all would agree.

While we await the results of that research, some things are already known. In year one, Colorado, which has a slightly smaller population than Massachusetts, took in about $44 million in taxes on recreational sales; lots of that money is going to schools. You thinking what I’m thinking?

The most often advanced objections — here, and there — appear to fall into two categories: the gateway drug concern and the dangers of driving high.

On the former, it is a gateway for some, as is alcohol, as is gambling. Will opponents move to outlaw them, too? And has six years of decriminalization here caused any of the problems opponents fear full legalization will? For the vast majority of users, it’s not a problem. Jeb Bush, Barack Obama, Charlie Baker, Maura Healey — none of whom support legalization — admit to having smoked weed. All of them turned out pretty well, or at least most of them did.


A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll last year asked American voters which of four substances they viewed as most harmful to a person’s overall health. Tobacco was at the top, picked by 49 percent of survey respondents. Second on the list was alcohol, chosen by 24 percent. Marijuana came in a distant fourth at a mere 8 percent. Know what was in third place? A substance that nearly twice as many respondents considered more dangerous than weed? Sugar. Let’s ban it!

The worry about driving under the influence may also be a little overblown. In a study the authors described as the “most precisely controlled” of its kind yet conducted, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration declared in February that while driving drunk dramatically increased the risk of getting into an accident, there was no evidence that smoking marijuana alone increased the risk in a statistically significant way.

All this research aside, what I find particularly odd is that our leaders seem to have forgotten that old saying: If you ignore history, you are doomed to have voters embrace an imperfect marijuana law come November 2016.


Inside a marijuana shop in Colorado on January 1, 2014, the first day of legal recreational sales. Brennan Linsley/AP

In 2008, the then governor, the DAs, and the attorney general all opposed decriminalization of an ounce or less, yet 63 percent of the voters rejected their advice. Four years later, it was a similar result, with 65 percent of us saying yes to medical use of marijuana, despite near-unanimous opposition at the top. It’s now 2½ years later, and not even one dispensary has opened (though the first, in Salem, is finally scheduled to in early summer). Maybe if the Legislature had done a more effective job drafting the measure than balloters did, we wouldn’t be in the middle of this mess.

Beacon Hill should also take a few minutes to look over FBI crime statistics. The American Civil Liberties Union released a study in 2013 called The War on Marijuana in Black and White. It found that in the year after decriminalization, a black person in the Bay State was 3.9 times more likely to be charged with possession of marijuana than a white person. That’s despite federal surveys showing blacks and whites use the drug at comparable rates.

Bottom line is that the people of Massachusetts are ahead of their representatives yet again. National polls show most support legalizing recreational use; the numbers have been moving up in this state, too, and are now at nearly 50 percent. You don’t need to be Nostradamus to see what’s coming. The public does — three-quarters of Americans, including a majority of supporters and opponents, say marijuana use will eventually be legal around the country.


So why not complete the Senate study, debate the issues, carefully craft a bill that makes the product safe while regulating and taxing it, then make it law. There are plenty of causes that could make good use of 40 or 50 million bucks in new revenue.

Maybe it’s time to get Nancy Reagan to reconsider. Maybe it’s time to just say yes.

Estimated Cost of Marijuana Possession Charges in Massachusetts in 2010

> Police — $4,637,007

> Judicial/Legal — $4,149,921

> Corrections — $540,723

Total — $9,327,651

Source: The War on Marijuana in Black and White, ACLU

Related coverage:

- A marijuana contingency plan for the Legislature

- DeLeo says it would be ‘very difficult’ to support marijuana legalization

- More from the Magazine

Jim Braude is host of “Greater Boston” on WGBH and co-host of WGBH’s “Boston Public Radio” on 89.7 FM. You can follow him on Twitter @jimbraude. Send comments to