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Mass. more ambivalent about legal marijuana than you might think

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Everyone attuned to state politics has heard the same cry for months: The ballot question legalizing marijuana is nearly certain to pass. The politicians leading a fight against it are wasting their breath.

Not so fast.

A new Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll shows that voters are almost evenly divided on the question, with those polled leaning, by a slight margin — 46 percent to 43 — against legalization. In a state that has already decriminalized marijuana, and approved it for medical use, many voters see little reason to go farther.

Personally, I can be counted among those uncomfortable with legalization. I had no problem with decriminalization. No one should be arrested for smoking a joint. Medical marijuana? Of course people suffering with crippling illnesses should have access to regulated medication that will help to alleviate their suffering. That strikes me as a matter of basic humanity.

But I'm not sure that means we want to become Colorado.


A spokesman for one of the groups advocating for passage of the ballot question told me his group wasn't surprised by the poll. "We never had any illusions that this would be an easy battle," said Jim Borghesani of The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol. "As far as we're concerned, it's always going to be an uphill battle."

The arguments for legalization are familiar. Marijuana would be regulated, supposedly improving the quality and safety of the product. The state can tax it. Criminals will be driven out of the industry — replaced, I suppose, by the chemists in fancy suits who have reinvented themselves as medical marijuana entrepreneurs. Marijuana is no more dangerous than booze. I find the last argument especially unpersuasive, given the wreckage often left by alcohol. But there's no question that the legal stigma of marijuana has fallen precipitously in recent years, as the acceptance of medical marijuana reflects.


The state's most popular elected officials have mobilized to oppose the question. Governor Charlie Baker, Mayor Marty Walsh and Attorney General Maura Healey have joined forces in a bipartisan effort to stop the question. They have framed their objections in the context of the heartbreaking opioid epidemic that is claiming lives by the week. Given their collective popularity, they would seem to be formidable adversaries.

Central to their argument is that legalizing marijuana makes little sense in a state battling a tragic and terrifying drug epidemic. Whether marijuana is or isn't a contributor to the opioid crisis, they believe the state should err of the side of caution. That argument may be gaining traction. Certainly, this is not an ideal political environment to advocate for legalizing drugs, no matter how much proponents of the ballot question ridicule the "gateway drug" argument.

Marijuana legalization isn't the only hot-button issue likely to be considered by voters this fall. They will also vote on lifting the cap on charter schools. That question is fiercely opposed by teachers' unions, among others. Nevertheless, the charter school measure is winning heavy support from voters, as it should. Those polled supported it by a margin of 50-33. The educational argument for lifting the cap is far more compelling then the bureaucratic fiscal argument against it. Barring a miracle, it's going to pass.

But the ballot question that will draw the most intense debate in the fall will certainly be the marijuana question. Culturally, it's a question that touches deep nerves.


After all, two generations of voters have grown up with easily available access to marijuana. At the same time, the principled backlash against mass incarceration and the bogus, racist "war on drugs" has also given impetus to the once-taboo idea of legalization. So the once-unthinkable now sounds as lot more reasonable.

Still, voters will be forced to ponder whether legalization encourages drug use, and whether they buy the notion that it would really improve the quality of life in this state. Even in liberal Massachusetts, that may require an uncomfortable leap of faith.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.