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Yvonne Abraham

Mayor Walsh on the wrong side of marijuana debate

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh is leading a fight against legalizing marijuana.
Boston Mayor Marty Walsh is leading a fight against legalizing marijuana.Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

As if Mayor Marty Walsh wasn’t already busy enough boosting the Olympics. Now he says he’d be willing to spend more precious time and political capital leading a fight against legalizing marijuana, too.

Let’s leave aside, for now, concerns over how thinly that would spread a mayor who already has plenty demanding his focus. Purely from a policy perspective, it’s the wrong fight to take on.

There are, by some estimates, at least half a million marijuana users in Massachusetts. Keeping pot illegal hasn’t done anything to stanch demand. It’s easy to get, and it’s everywhere; ask any high school or college student.

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Users support an industry worth millions upon millions each year in this state, said Matt Simon, New England political director of the DC-based Marijuana Policy Project. In the illicit market, sales are neither taxed nor regulated. Dealers, some connected to violent worlds, don’t card customers. We can’t stop people from smoking pot, but we can diminish and maybe crush the role of gangs and cartels by bringing the trade out of the shadows.

The laws we have now are not only ineffective, they’re oh so unevenly applied, with black users targeted way more heavily than white ones — even though the two groups use at the same rate. An ACLU study found that in 2010 — the year after possession of an ounce or less was decriminalized here — black people were four times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession in Massachusetts. In Barnstable County, the imbalance was more shocking, with black users 11 times more likely than white users to be arrested.

Inequities like that should stop the mayor of a city that is 25 percent black in his tracks.

To be fair, Walsh didn’t go looking for this. He was asked whether he’d lead opposition to a 2016 ballot question to legalize pot, and said he’d “step up if nobody else did.” And his position is heartfelt. He’s a recovering alcoholic, and his opposition to legal pot is based on a fervent belief that it is a gateway drug.

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“I have known plenty of situations, plenty of families and individuals out there that will say they began drug use while smoking marijuana, which led to other drugs,” Walsh said yesterday. Legalization “will open up a whole potential new world of addicts.”

Here’s the problem with the mayor’s position: The marijuana-as-gateway thing is based on shaky science. There is a correlation between using marijuana and using harder drugs (a person interested in getting high might be more likely to try other mood-altering substances), and that is worth our attention. But that’s not the same as saying marijuana causes somebody to use harder drugs.

“Just because marijuana smokers might be more likely to later use, say, cocaine, does not imply that using marijuana causes one to use cocaine,” says FactCheck.org, which took New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to task for making the gateway argument in April. Some research — inconclusive so far — has found paths whereby marijuana primes the brain for other drug abuse, but similar results were found for tobacco and alcohol.

So if marijuana is a gateway drug, then tobacco and alcohol are, too. It makes little sense for a society in which tobacco is legal, and alcohol cheered, to make marijuana — no more intrinsically harmful than they are — illegal.

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Walsh is resolutely unmoved by those arguments. “I’m not a scientist,” he said, and he doesn’t want to argue about studies. He said he knows what he knows, and that any addiction counselor will back him up.

Look, even without the dubious gateway claims, marijuana can be dangerous. I worry especially about its effects on adolescents. But we have a better chance of addressing its dangers if we bring pot out into the open. The money we waste enforcing marijuana laws could go into the kind of education efforts that have so effectively cut tobacco use.

This is a losing battle for Walsh, and not just because he hasn’t got time for it. Legalization is not just inevitable. It’s right.

Related coverage:

- Medical marijuana for kids


Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com.