One week before Election Day, Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, Governor Charlie Baker, Mayor Martin J. Walsh of Boston, and other religious and political leaders issued a grave warning against Question 4, which would make marijuana legal in Massachusetts.
They asserted the ballot measure could increase the prevalence of youth marijuana use, endanger pregnant women and their unborn children, sow fear in parents sending their children to college in Massachusetts, boost drugged driving, increase black-market drug activity, and hurt poor neighborhoods and people of color. They decried the prospect of commercializing the drug, arguing pot companies would put profit over public health and safety.
And they asserted marijuana is an entrée for people to get hooked on harder drugs.
“Just to be clear, marijuana is a gateway drug,” declared a fired-up Walsh, flanked by representatives of the Christian and Muslim faiths. (The science on whether pot is a gateway drug is not definitive.)
O’Malley, a longtime anchor of Boston’s religious community, underscored the measure was not about decriminalizing the drug. Voters already did that in 2008, when they replaced criminal penalties for possession of an ounce or less of marijuana with a system of civil penalties. And voters made marijuana legal for medical use in 2012.
“It’s about the commercialization — bringing billions of dollars worth of dangerous drugs into the Commonwealth,” he said. “For some, it means huge financial benefits. But ... people are more important than money.”
The Catholic leader also said he can imagine parents “thinking twice” before sending their sons and daughters to school in a place that becomes “a mecca” of marijuana on the East Coast.
O’Malley leads the Boston Archdiocese, which recently directed $850,000 to the Campaign for a Safe and Healthy Massachusetts, which aims to defeat the ballot question.
Several speakers made the case that a legal marijuana industry would disproportionately impact people of color in urban areas of cities such as Boston. They pointed to places like Denver, where legal pot businesses are clustered in low-income neighborhoods and residents say they experience all of the negatives of the new industry, from the rumbling of trucks to the constant stench of weed, with none of the economic benefit.
“We will feel the impact more than any other communities, because we always do,” said Pastor Arlene O. Hall of the Deliverance Temple Worship Center in Dorchester, where the news conference was held. “And, as always, we have fewer resources to combat this epidemic and the implications, if it should pass.”
Baker, a Republican, said he has deep concerns about where retail marijuana activity would take place.
“In wealthier communities, I guarantee you, people will find legal representation and other means to prevent these dispensaries from opening in their communities,” he said.
More than 100 religious leaders released a letter this week urging residents to vote no. They wrote that as clergy, they believe that “our efforts as a society should be focused toward improving life for our citizens. A culture that encourages and promotes the use of drugs is failing its people.”
Proponents of the measure say marijuana is not a gateway drug. They say legalization would quickly begin to phase out the black market, ending more than a century of failed prohibition that has ensnared otherwise law-abiding citizens in the criminal justice system. They say it would divert money from criminals to companies operating on the up and up and improving the health and safety of children by moving marijuana sales to licensed stores that check IDs.
“Today our opponents condensed 80 years of hysteria and alarmism into a desperate attempt to maintain a system dangerous to consumers and harmful to communities of color,” said Jim Borghesani, a spokesman for YES on 4. “Their doomsday predictions have been proven false in states with legal marijuana systems and they’ll be proven false in Massachusetts. It’s particularly distressing that religious leaders are embracing a cruel status quo that hurts the very people they should be protecting.”
Also on Wednesday, officials with the anti-legalization campaign said they will begin airing a 30-second television advertisement Thursday featuring the widow of a Massachusetts state trooper killed by a driver allegedly high on marijuana.
The opponents posted an emotional web video of the widow, Reisa Clardy, last week. But it was unclear, at the time, if it would have enough money to turn the footage into a television spot.
At the event, Walsh, an active supporter of people struggling with addiction, struck an emotional chord, too.
He said he made a call this morning to a parent who lost a child to alcohol and drugs.
The mayor said there have been many ballot questions he’s supported and opposed.
But there’s never been one he’s opposed more than Question 4, he said.
“The reason for it: I’ve had to make too many phone calls like I made today, to parents to say, ‘I’m sorry about your loss. Your son or daughter’s pain and suffering is over now. Because they’re no longer with us.’ ”
The Globe’s David Scharfenberg contributed to this report. Email Joshua Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org.