In an unusual show of bipartisan political muscle, three of the Massachusetts’ most powerful elected officials, along with voices from Boston’s health care, law enforcement, and nonprofit sectors issued a passionate cry Friday in opposition to a November ballot question that would legalize marijuana. They framed their objection to the measure through the lens of the deadly opioid overdose scourge in the state.
“You’ll hear the other side say that marijuana is not a gateway drug,” said Mayor Martin J. Walsh of Boston at a news conference. “If you know anyone in the recovery community, talk to them. ... You’ll hear that most of them, many of them started with marijuana.”
Walsh, a recovering alcoholic and longtime advocate for people struggling with addiction, said when he mulls the ballot question, he thinks about the many wakes and funerals he has attended for people who died of overdoses and how their addictions started.
House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said he felt he would have been a hypocrite to support marijuana legalization as he works to fight the opioid abuse epidemic.
DeLeo said every time he goes to a halfway house or talks to people struggling with addiction, he asks them how they ended up in the position they are in.
“It must be at least 90 percent of the time, I hear the word ‘marijuana.’ That that’s where they started,” he said. “And worked their way up all the way, in most cases, to heroin today.”
But Jim Borghesani, communications director for the referendum-backing Campaign to Regulate Marijuana like Alcohol in Massachusetts, said the data doesn’t back up claims of a connection between marijuana and opioid abuse.
“It’s simply not there. There’s no credible science, evidence that shows any connection between marijuana use and opioid use,” he said. “It doesn’t exist.”
The officials at the anti-legalization event also framed the measure as a grave negative for the state’s young people, and underscored the potential that, like Big Tobacco has for decades, Big Marijuana would target the state’s most vulnerable populations.
Governor Charlie Baker said the ballot question wasn’t just about allowing adults to use marijuana in the privacy of their home, but about “the creation of a billion-dollar, for-profit commercial marijuana industry.”
He noted that, should the ballot measure pass, it would transform the state’s Main Streets. Citing the experience of Colorado, where retail marijuana sales became legal in 2014, Baker predicted that marijuana shops and grow facilities would end up near “some of the most disadvantaged communities, where the challenges citizens face are already great.”
Baker, a Republican, also issued a warning about marijuana-infused foods like candy, cookies, and soda, which would be legal under the ballot measure. Those edibles often look identical to their non-narcotic counterparts, and he said, as the state’s chief executive and the parent to three kids, that piece of legalization concerns him most of all.
There was also a clear message in the venue chosen for the packed 75-minute news conference — organized by the Campaign For a Safe and Healthy Massachusetts, the main anti-legalization ballot group. It was held at a Boston high school for students struggling with substance abuse issues, the William J. Ostiguy High School.
Principal Roger Oser emphasized to reporters that marijuana is already decriminalized in Massachusetts — criminal penalties for possession of an ounce or less have been replaced with a system of civil penalties and for most adults who use marijuana casually, there are no criminal sanctions.
And he underscored the drug is already legal for medical use.
“The question I’d like to ask is: What about our moral imperative to our young people?” he said. “We don’t fulfill our obligation to young people by supporting the legalization of marijuana,” Oser continued, saying it would lower kids’ perception of how risky the drug is, leading to more use.
Among the other speakers: John J. Drew, president/chief executive of Action for Boston Community Development; Suffolk Sheriff Steve Tompkins; Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito; Dr. Sharon Levy, a pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital.
Borghesani, of the pro-legalization group, brushed off all of the arguments against recreational marijuana.
Teen use is not increasing in states where recreational marijuana is legal, he argued.
Marijuana prohibition hasn’t worked for more than a century in Massachusetts, he insisted, so it’s just good policy to move the expansive marijuana market from from criminal syndicates to companies operating on the up and up. And, Borghesani continued, it makes sense to bring marijuana tax revenue into state coffers, instead of spending taxpayer cash on enforcement.
Should voters pass the referendum, possessing, using, and giving away an ounce or less of recreational marijuana would be legal for adults 21 and older as of Dec. 15, and retail sales could commence in January 2018.