“ARE YOU READY FOR FREEDOM?” The call goes out from the main stage of the 27th annual Boston Freedom Rally on this warm mid-September morning. Judging from the aroma of cannabis in the air, the hundreds of attendees spread out across Boston Common are already enjoying that freedom, one puff at a time.
Dick Evans takes the stage first to provide a bit of historical context. Evans, 72 and wearing a green tie, has lobbied for legalization since 1981, making him the elder statesman of Massachusetts’s marijuana movement. Back in the early days, he says, “we were the lunatic fringe” — but not anymore. In 2008, more than 60 percent of state voters passed a ballot measure decriminalizing the possession of an ounce or less of cannabis. Four years later, a similar percentage legalized medical marijuana. Now, via Question 4 on next month’s ballot, voters could legalize marijuana outright.
“If we are successful,” Evans tells the crowd, “when you come back next year, we won’t be pushing for legalization, we will be celebrating marijuana itself.”
Even just a year ago, that celebration might have seemed all but certain. Although this was the first state to ban cannabis, in 1911, it has since become a hotbed of marijuana activism. Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a national drug-reform organization, is based in Medford, and for years UMass Amherst professor Lyle Craker has famously tried to get federal approval to grow marijuana for medical studies. And a group called MassCann has spent two decades running 41 nonbinding pro-marijuana policy questions on local ballots around the state, all of which passed.
Massachusetts may have seemed like a legalization shoo-in, but that’s not how things have been working out. After several early 2016 polls showed the pro side with a considerable lead, polls in May and July suggested a majority of voters opposed legalization and, until recently, online betting markets gave Question 4 less chance of winning than nearly all marijuana measures being tracked nationwide. While surveys over the past two months have given Question 4 a much better shot at victory — a WBUR poll released October 19 gave it a 15-point margin — don’t count out the opposition just yet. Massachusetts-born casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, a staunch marijuana opponent, recently donated $1 million to fight passage of Question 4.
The individuals tasked with ensuring legalization wins next month show up at the rally after Evans has left the stage: Will Luzier and Jim Borghesani, the campaign manager and communications director of the Yes on 4 campaign. Dressed in business casual and exuding all-business attitudes, the two look less like marijuana activists than policy wonks heading to a meeting at the State House. Luzier scans the crowd, full of folks wandering about in smoke-filled gas masks and “This Is My Pot Smoking Shirt” jerseys. He says this is the closest he’s ever come to a Freedom Rally since one was going on near a wedding he once attended in the Public Garden.
Luzier likes to recount how getting caught with a small amount of marijuana in 1970 nearly derailed his career, but he and Borghesani (who hasn’t tried it since his freshman year of college) weren’t selected to lead the Yes on 4 campaign for their marijuana experience. Borghesani, who is 58, is a former press secretary for the governor’s office and the Suffolk County DA, and 66-year-old Luzier is a former assistant attorney general and one-time executive director of a governor-appointed substance-abuse prevention group. They’re emblematic of a professionalization (and some say corporatization) of the movement, an acknowledgment that the folks who need targeting aren’t those at rallies like these around the country, but the more than 50 percent of Americans who haven’t tried marijuana and need persuading that legalizing it is sound policy.
Maybe this new approach to cannabis reform will work — but maybe not. Massachusetts legalizers are facing the most organized and powerful cannabis opposition in the country, not to mention divisions within their own pro-marijuana ranks. What’s more, some say the Question 4 campaign’s responses to these challenges have at times made matters worse. So, will next year’s Freedom Rally be a victory lap — or a eulogy for a campaign that went up in smoke?
“I DON’T WANT THE DEBATE to focus on the safety of marijuana,” says Jim Borghesani, his arms crossed. “I think we are stronger when we talk about the safety of the regulated market.”
He stands in the middle of the Yes on 4 war room, a cramped 12th-floor space overlooking the Old State House. Nearby, Will Luzier sits at his desk, beneath a wall calendar themed “420” — a reference to pop culture’s code for marijuana. There’s a debate tomorrow in Framingham, and both men are brainstorming with Shanel Lindsay, founder of a local medical marijuana device company and one of Question 4’s coauthors, who is looped in via speakerphone.
They rattle off their key talking points: Removing marijuana from the black market would make the drug safer. Ending cannabis prohibition would reduce the drug war’s disproportionate impact on minorities — blacks are arrested for marijuana possession 3.3 times as often as whites in the state, according to a recent ACLU report. And legalization in Massachusetts could equal $100 million in new annual revenue, thanks in part to as much as 12 percent in taxes on recreational sales.
Borghesani and Luzier have been hammering away at these points since July 2015, helping draft ballot language, coordinating signature drives, penning op-eds, and, yes, even registering voters at a Willie Nelson concert. It’s telling that the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), the national marijuana reform organization supporting legalization efforts here, didn’t look to the state’s deep bench of longtime marijuana advocates for campaign staff, but to career political operatives like Luzier and Borghesani.
The marijuana movement, locally and nationally, began a shift in the mid-2000s. New organizations like MPP and the Drug Policy Alliance were on the ascent, armed with professional strategies and hefty donations from billionaires like business magnate George Soros, who believes drug use is a public health issue and not a law enforcement one, and the late Progressive Insurance chairman Peter Lewis, who used medical marijuana. To finally pass binding ballot questions, these operations were looking for a new brand of advocate.
“When you are starting to invest this kind of money, you want to invest in folks you think have the chops to run a statewide electoral campaign,” says ACLU of Massachusetts political director Whitney Taylor, who in 2008 ran the successful decriminalization campaign with seed money from Soros and MPP. “It’s about moving from smoke-ins to candidate debates, from messages based on ‘This plant is a human right’ to real societal explanations of why this would be beneficial to everybody, including people who don’t smoke marijuana.”
But not everyone among Massachusetts’s marijuana old guard likes this big money-backed, legalese-heavy legalization. Last summer, MassCann officially endorsed a competing ballot initiative, spearheaded by the organization’s cofounder, Steve Epstein, that would have legalized the possession, sale, and cultivation of marijuana without the specially regulated system of grow houses, testing labs, and retailers required by Question 4. When that initiative failed to garner enough signatures, many MassCann members endorsed Question 4 — but not Epstein. “I don’t call it a legalization movement,” he says. “I call it a crony capitalism and new bureaucracy movement.”
Despite Borghesani’s best efforts, the Framingham debate, held the next morning in the basement of the Town Hall, devolves into arguments about various marijuana studies. He and Lindsay go back and forth with their debate opponents, who include state Senator Jason Lewis and Walpole Police Chief John Carmichael Jr. Among the anti-legalization contingent’s arguments: Marijuana can function as a gateway drug. Legalizing it could lead to more youth use and driving accidents. And, perhaps most compellingly, why bother allowing recreational use when the state has already decriminalized cannabis and legalized medical marijuana?
In front of the standing-room-only crowd, each side accuses the other of ties to special interests. Lewis says Question 4 is being driven by “pot billionaires,” while Borghesani uses the fact that the Beer Distributors of Massachusetts and the Wine and Spirit Wholesalers of Massachusetts have together donated $75,000 to fight their campaign to ask, “Why is the alcohol industry funding the opposition to legal marijuana?”
As the debate wears on, panelists become increasingly aggressive. Carmichael describes, in vivid detail, walking in on a heroin overdose and finding a bong. Borghesani, for his part, questions the Senate’s 2015 decision to appoint Lewis — a critic of the state’s decriminalization and medical marijuana campaigns — as the chairman of its marijuana legalization committee. In March, the influential committee concluded it had “serious concerns” about legalizing marijuana. Having Lewis run the panel was like “putting a cattle rancher in charge of a committee to study veganism,” Borghesani quips. The crowd groans.
This may be a tougher audience than he expected.
AROUND THE UNITED STATES, dozens of efforts to pass pro-marijuana initiatives have faced opposition from elected officials. But only in Massachusetts has a group of a state’s top brass joined together, across party lines, to formally oppose a legalization campaign.
The broadside began in March, when Governor Charlie Baker, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, and Attorney General Maura Healey co-authored a joint Boston Globe op-ed opposing legalization. A month later, Baker and Walsh launched their anti-Question 4 Campaign for a Safe and Healthy Massachusetts. Eventually, Healey and more than 120 elected officials and 15 statewide organizations joined with the group.
The legalization campaign, which had until then enjoyed a year of favorable polling, took a big hit almost immediately. In April, one poll had voters supporting legalization by a 57 to 35 percent margin. But a month later, a Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll reported respondents opposing it 46 to 43 percent. Two months later, the opposition’s lead grew even wider: 51 to 41 percent.
Question 4’s sizable and unprecedented opposition could be in part happenstance, says Kris Krane, president of the Boston cannabis consulting and operations firm 4Front Ventures. “You have a governor who has very strong ties to the treatment community from his ties to health care,” he says. “And you have the mayor of Boston who is a recovering alcoholic and very anti-drug.” (4Front Ventures donates office space to the Yes on 4 campaign and has given it more than $35,000.)
Then there’s the state’s opioid crisis, which claimed more than 1,500 lives in 2015. Baker pledged to make combating addiction a top priority, working closely with Walsh and Healey last year to craft an opioid-control law — with a coalition in place to stop one kind of drug, the three then also opposed the legalization of another. “As we are addressing the opiate crisis, now is not the time to introduce an entirely new drug market,” says Corey Welford, spokesman for the campaign.
Concerns about marijuana being a gateway to opioids is one of the reasons why health care industry players are also lining up against Question 4. In early October, the Massachusetts Medical Society and 10 other statewide doctors groups came out against Question 4 — arguing, among other things, that the drug can be addictive, presents a health hazard to young people, and would be a threat to highway safety. Medical interests, including nonprofits like the Health Foundation of Central Massachusetts and the substance-abuse treatment program Spectrum Health Systems, are together responsible for nearly a quarter of a million dollars in donations to the Campaign for a Safe and Healthy Massachusetts.
The Yes on 4 campaign argues that marijuana reform could actually help address the opioid epidemic. They point to studies that suggest that physicians prescribe fewer pain pills in states with legalized medical marijuana and that opioid overdose deaths are 25 percent lower in those locales. But when the state’s top officials and health experts link marijuana and opiate deaths, folks are bound to listen.
The legalization movement’s first response to its formidable opposition didn’t help. In Colorado, marijuana advocates made hay from the fact that Governor John Hickenlooper had once cofounded a brewery. The day after Walsh and Baker launched their campaign, the MPP-backed Yes on 4 team tried a similar approach, unveiling a sign depicting the two officials — who had supported additional Boston liquor licenses and longer bar operating hours — saying, “Our health policy: Drink more alcohol!” In the face of widespread criticism, particularly in light of Walsh’s status as a recovering alcoholic, Luzier and Borghesani quickly apologized and scrapped the sign.
It was a hint that the MPP’s top-down approach to legalization campaigns might not work amid the deeply personal politics of Massachusetts. “The national group that has done things like this in other states, they are working with us on our initiative,” Borghesani says of MPP. “But sometimes one idea or tactic that works in other states doesn’t work in this state.”
Along the way, Massachusetts legalizers might have lost their ability to fully leverage one of their big arguments: that cannabis should be treated like booze. Originally, their initiative was titled the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, as similar MPP-backed efforts are called in Maine, Nevada, and Arizona. But by August, the Massachusetts campaign was known simply as Yes on 4.
DAUNTING ADVERSARIES aren’t the legalization campaign’s only problem. There’s also the lack of unified support from those who are supposedly on its side.
In May, after an MPP fund-raising event in Boston drew just one attendee, the national organization sent out an anxious e-mail to supporters. “What’s worrisome isn’t this one bad event, but that it mirrors the contributions and involvement across Massachusetts since the initiative launch,” the e-mail read. “Simply put, the campaign is broke.”
Among those not supporting Yes on 4 is Patriot Care, Boston’s only open medical marijuana dispensary. The operation — which inside looks look a cross between an Apple Store and Fort Knox — occupies prime downtown real estate across from the Old South Meeting House, not that most passersby would know it. It opened in August, but outdoor signage, an inconspicuous 2-by-2-foot placard, only went up recently. “This is a destination, not an impulse buy,” says CEO Bob Mayerson, standing outside the entrance in a smart-looking suit and tie.
The nonprofit operation, part of a national chain of medical marijuana dispensaries, is not taking a position on legalization this year. “I am focusing 100 percent on the needs of patients in Massachusetts,” says Mayerson, who will only add he has “concerns” about the legislation. “I cannot address what happens beyond that. It is not part of our mission.”
Patriot Care won’t say where it stands on legalization, but there’s no question about the position of its main lobbyist, Daniel Delaney. In January, Delaney, who helped five of the first nine dispensaries win licenses in Massachusetts, including Patriot Care, launched a committee to oppose what would become Question 4 (even before Governor Baker and Mayor Walsh announced their campaign). Delaney says he’s not against legalization in principle, just the specific wording of this approach, which, among other things, limits local control over marijuana shops and lets people grow up to 12 plants per household. “I hate so viscerally this language,” says Delaney, a former state health official. “I am concerned about moving too fast on a broad scale.”
Delaney’s position has cost him. His office has been picketed, and he says that he’s lost one of his medical marijuana clients and that marijuana advocates have urged his other clients to fire him. One operation that has stuck with him, however, is Patriot Care, which has promised its downtown location will sell only medical marijuana and therefore might lose business if recreational shops open all over the city.
But both Delaney and Patriot Care deny they’re working together to defeat Question 4. Delaney also maintains he isn’t taking his stand because he is a lobbyist (and was recently interim CEO) for Commonwealth Alternative Care, which is trying to open a medical marijuana cultivation facility in Easton. He says his two teenage sons are a factor in worrying about the market opening too wide too soon.
Patriot Care isn’t the only marijuana interest keeping its distance from Question 4. Part of the problem could be that the national marijuana movement is stretched too thin, with more ballot initiatives around the country this November than ever before. But Rob Kampia, MPP’s executive director, also lays blame on Massachusetts’s medical marijuana stakeholders, who have been slow to pony up the donations they seemed to suggest would be forthcoming. Kampia compares some of them — but not all — to drug addicts who want the “short-term rush” of looking like big spenders at pro-legalization fund-raisers. “You throw out a big [number] and everyone looks at you and it feels really good,” he says. “But then you go home and you realize you don’t have any money, so then you just hide in your cave and don’t answer your phone for a couple months.”
Who could blame them? The seven medical marijuana dispensaries now open in Massachusetts probably don’t have lots of money lying around for donations. “On average, it’s taking nine to fourteen months and costing $100,000 to $200,000 before medical marijuana businesses get licenses,” says 4Front’s Kris Krane. “These companies are bleeding money.” On top of that, dispensaries are in a bind because of the letters of consent or non-opposition they need from the cities and towns in which they want to operate. “I think applicants are rightly concerned that if they’re outspoken in favor of it, it could cost them a chance at a license,” Krane says.
Even medical-marijuana advocates are struggling with Question 4. The Massachusetts Patient Advocacy Alliance, which supports the 36,000-plus medical-marijuana patients statewide, is remaining neutral. That’s partly because the organization doesn’t want to jeopardize its relationships with public health officials, says the Alliance’s executive director Nichole Snow. But it’s also because in other states recreational marijuana has had a way of eclipsing patient needs. “The marijuana industry has great potential for crowding out advocacy groups,” Snow says. “Business interests are going to outnumber the patients. I have already seen it happen.”
Earlier this year, Washington state shut down nearly all its roughly 1,500 medical dispensaries, forcing most medical marijuana patients to buy their cannabis, at a slightly discounted price, from recreational shops. Even if Massachusetts didn’t go the same route after legalization, market forces could have the same effect. Legalization “slows the growth of medical markets,” a recent analysis by a cannabis investor network concluded. But though that’s bad for medical marijuana investors, it can be good for consumers, who benefit from falling prices and broader selection amid the competition.
In late summer and early fall, polls began looking a bit better for the Yes on 4 Campaign. Borghesani attributes the upswing to his team’s heavy schedule of debates, forums, and interviews, an informational onslaught that now includes TV buys courtesy of the group’s no-longer-empty war chest. The Yes on 4 group scored nearly $3 million from New Approach PAC, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group formed by relatives of the late Peter Lewis, and activist and PBS travel guru Rick Steves donated $100,000 and came to town in October for four days of campaigning. The campaign now boasts $4 million-plus in contributions, more than twice its opponents’ haul, even with Sheldon Adelson’s recent $1 million donation to fight Question 4.
Still, it must be discouraging to spend some of those new resources addressing the concerns of folks technically on the same pro-marijuana team. But that’s just the plight of the modern-day marijuana legalizer, says Joe Brezny, who’s been running Nevada’s legalization campaign for three years.
“Basically, I learned that when you run a marijuana campaign, everyone hates you,” he says. “Although I make my living running campaigns, and have for more than 25 years, this will be my last marijuana campaign. Ever.”
IT’S MIDAFTERNOON AT THE FREEDOM RALLY when Will Luzier and Jim Borghesani take the stage in an out-of-the-way education tent to talk about what legalization would look like. The two explain tax structures and regulatory agencies to the dozen or so people sitting quietly in the audience, raising their voices to be heard over the hundreds of revelers streaming past. A few minutes in, the moderator interrupts the discussion. “Happy 4:20!” she declares.
It’s time to observe the tradition that says 4:20 p.m. is the moment to get high. Audience members light joints and puff at their battery-operated vapes, and a cloud of marijuana smoke rises above Boston Common. Luzier and Borghesani, sitting stone-faced and quiet, don’t participate.
While the optics of such carousing might not play well to general voters, some might say the Question 4 campaign should more fully embrace big, chaos-free events like this one. After all, as Luzier concedes later, maybe one of the best arguments for Massachusetts voters who wonder why they should legalize marijuana is that it can be fun and not that harmful. “This is about the freedom to use something that is relatively benign and not have the government say you can’t do it,” he says.
But in a state that only two years ago loosened its 17th-century “blue laws” to allow 10 a.m. Sunday liquor sales, and where much-debated casinos are on their way, maybe building a campaign around giving people pleasure just won’t fly. “I think some of it goes back to Puritanism,” Luzier says. “Perhaps folks are a little bit hidebound in Massachusetts.”
And that’s why, after the 4:20 merriment has died down, Luzier and Borghesani stick to their legalese-heavy talking points. And it’s why, even though the festivities continue after their discussion wraps up to a scattering of polite applause, they don’t hang around and join in.
BY THE NUMBERS
$4,012,600 — Amount raised (through mid-oct.) by the pro-legalization Yes on 4 campaign, including roughly:
> $2.9 million from New Approach PAC, a Washington D.C.-based reform group
> $328,000 from Marijuana Policy Project, another D.C.-based reform group
> $100,000 from travel guru and activist Rick Steves
> $10,000 from Jonathan Bush, CEO of Athenahealth (and cousin of George W.)
$1,608,748 — Amount raised (through mid-oct.) by The Campaign for a Safe and Healthy Massachusetts, an anti-legalization group, including roughly:
> $1 million from casino magnate Sheldon Adelson
> $100,000 from Partners HealthCare
> $50,000 from Wine and Spirit Wholesalers of Massachusetts
> $10,000 from Massachusetts Medical Society /NEJM
Source: The Mass. Office of Campaign & Political Finance and the Globe
This story was updated October 19 to reflect the latest poll results.