NORTHAMPTON — The response to Dick Evans at the State House was not warm.
The lawyer had drafted a bill legalizing, regulating, and taxing marijuana, and it was among the topics of a public hearing.
Evans made his case in a short speech. “Antidrug crusader types,” of whom there were many, also had their say, he recalled. Then, a legislator asked those in the big crowd who opposed legalization to make themselves known.
“The building shook,” Evans said, laughing. “They are still talking about the roar that was heard.”
The hearing was gaveled to a close, and Evans said, “that was it for about 35 years.”
It was 1981.
Evans, 71, with a shock of white hair, has been involved in pressing for the legalization of marijuana in Massachusetts as long as just about anyone. Now, as chairman of a group pushing to legalize recreational marijuana use by popular vote in 2016, he is poised to be a key player in an effort that could successfully conclude his nearly four decades of advocacy.
The group, the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Massachusetts, is backed by the national, well-funded Marijuana Policy Project, and he is currently working with others on crafting the specific parameters of a ballot initiative for 2016 — from how marijuana would be regulated to the rate of a tax on the drug.
After robust Massachusetts majorities approved measures that decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana in 2008 and allowed its use for medical purposes in 2012, political analysts predict a legalization measure will probably garner the tens of thousands of signatures necessary to get on the ballot and enough votes to pass into law.
But the journey to the precipice of legalization has been a long one.
Barry Smith, a friend who traveled with him to the 1981 hearing, said the reaction to Evans’s bill was not “the least bit respectful” — though not negative enough for Evans to call it quits.
“Dick is a very, very ebullient fellow, and his spirits weren’t permanently damaged,” Smith said, “but it wasn’t an easy experience.”
Sporting a cannabis-green tie in a recent interview at his small law office, Evans recalled the genesis of his advocacy.
The youngest of three boys, he grew up in Tampa. His father was a federal probation officer, his mother a school teacher. All the brothers became lawyers and, Evans said chuckling, one a drug court judge.
‘The notion of prohibiting all use of marijuana by all persons in all circumstances, and punishing violators severely, runs counter to the very notion of freedom.’Dick Evans, Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Massachusetts chairman
After four years in the military, including some time in the Pioneer Valley, he returned to Florida for law school, where he said he struggled squaring the constitutional law he was reading with the country’s drug statutes.
Evans moved to Massachusetts and was admitted to the state’s bar in 1973.
A few years later, he was hanging out with a colleague on a Saturday, “passing a joint,” talking about how “wrong-headed” the marijuana laws were, he remembered. The colleague encouraged him to get involved, and Evans joined NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
After some years in the movement, he said, he began to think that perhaps the reason no one was seriously talking about legalizing marijuana is that no one had shown how it could be done.
“I said, ‘Someone needs to write a comprehensive statute,’ ” Evans said in the interview, “So I did!”
He leapt up on a chair to grab his original legalization bill from a shelf.
Of course, the 1981 effort did not work out as planned, and Evans said he gave up on Beacon Hill, but not on the issue.
“The notion of prohibiting all use of marijuana by all persons in all circumstances, and punishing violators severely,” he said, “runs counter to the very notion of freedom.”
Eric E. Sterling, president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, a drug law reform group, recalled meeting Evans for the first time at a NORML conference in the early 1980s.
“I was tremendously impressed with him. I remember he gave a very articulate, well-constructed argument for marijuana legalization,” Sterling said, adding that, at that time, there were not that many people advocating for the idea.
Evans’s paper trail of advocacy is long. Among his many appearances in print, a 1980 op-ed in The New York Times (“The principle that government does not belong on people’s backs cannot be tortured to justify the arrest and prosecution of people for what they smoke.”); and quotes in a 1996 issue of Time magazine about what he told his son about drugs (“Don’t believe much of what they tell you in school about drugs. For example, don’t buy into the notion that drug ‘abuse’ is the same as drug ‘use.’ ”)
Evans’s life is not all marijuana advocacy. His primary legal practice focuses on land conservation. He’s a Northampton resident, he plays trumpet, and he is involved with a nearby pumpkin festival.
But he said he has felt a sense of duty to press on the legalization issue.
“My job, over the last couple of decades, has been to try and keep the issue alive in Massachusetts — I and other people,” he said.
Others in the push to legalize see Evans as both influential and a good team player.
He is “a mover and shaker in the activist movement,” not shy about speaking his mind, but “doesn’t try and steal the spotlight,” said Bill Downing, a fellow legalization activist who has known Evans for 25 years.
But Evans says his advocacy won’t last forever: Once marijuana is legal, he plans to retire.
So for all his talk, is Evans himself a user?
He said he has avoided speaking about his own use of marijuana publicly because he has not wanted to give probable cause for his arrest or, these days, for a civil infraction.
“I’ll tell you what,” Evans said leaning in toward a reporter, “when you and I can share a joint and neither of us has to worry about our job” — he slapped the table for emphasis — “I’ll talk about it.”Joshua Miller can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jm_bos.