Metro

It’s official: Marijuana is legal in Massachusetts

Tomorrow it will be legal to possess, use, and home-grow marijuana for Massachusetts residents over the age of 21.
Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images
It is now legal to possess, use, and home-grow marijuana for Massachusetts residents over the age of 21.

It was 1911. The New England Watch and Ward Society (née the New England Society for the Suppression of Vice) was battling against drugs and other “special evils.” And in April of that year, the group’s leaders successfully petitioned the Massachusetts Legislature to outlaw possession of several “hypnotic drugs,” including cannabis.

One hundred five years, seven months, and 16 days later — Thursday — marijuana became legal again in Massachusetts.

The Governor’s Council, a Colonial-era body that vets judges and accepts election tabulations, on Wednesday formally certified the results of a ballot question that allows marijuana for recreational use.

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The initiative passed last month with 1.8 million people voting for the measure, despite the opposition of top politicians, the Catholic Church, doctors and business groups, and an array of other civic leaders. About 1.5 million people voted against it.

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Perhaps the loudest voices opposed to the measure came from law enforcement. But on Wednesday, police were learning how to enforce what one top public safety official called “a complex web” of rules for licensed and unlicensed sellers, for those who sell the drug for profit and those who give it away.

Even as pot remains illegal under federal law, possession, use, and home-growing are now allowed under state law for adults 21 and over.

But public consumption of the drug remains forbidden in Massachusetts, as do several related activities, such as smoking weed anywhere tobacco smoking is prohibited. It will also be illegal to drive under the influence of marijuana, though there is no cannabis equivalent in the law to the 0.08 blood-alcohol limit.

Selling pot, too, remains outlawed until the state treasurer sets up a regulated marketplace and licenses retail stores. The law sets a January 2018 time frame for pot shops to open, creating a legal gray zone until then — buying up to an ounce of pot from a dealer is legal, but the dealer is breaking the law.

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The Massachusetts measure is part of a national trend. Voters here were joined on Nov. 8 by those in Maine, California, and Nevada. The people of Colorado, Oregon, Washington state, Alaska, and the District of Columbia also voted to legalize marijuana in recent years.

The final step in the journey to being law in Massachusetts came at Wednesday’s session of the Governor’s Council, usually a pro forma acceptance of the election results.

Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito gaveled in the meeting. And with a chorus of “ayes” from the councilors, the legalization measure — along with the results of other elections — became law.

After the vote was certified, Jennie L. Caissie, a Republican councilor, stood up and said she couldn’t in good conscience certify the result. Her speech had no legal bearing, however.

For legalization advocates, the stroke of midnight Thursday represented the culmination of a long twilight struggle that was met with dismissal for decades, but increasing acceptance in recent years.

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Massachusetts voters decriminalized marijuana in 2008, replacing the criminal penalties for possession of 1 ounce or less with a new system of civil penalties. In 2012, voters approved a ballot question legalizing marijuana for medical use. And last month, the final step.

“The success of this initiative represents the triumph of citizen action in the face of legislative intransigence,” said Dick Evans, who has been working to legalize the drug in Massachusetts for almost 40 years. His own legalization bill was shouted down in a 1981 Beacon Hill hearing.

Evans, 72, said Question 4’s ample victory shows the power of democratic pressure — from rallies to letters.

“The citizens have achieved this expansion of liberty using the initiative process which was conceived precisely for purposes such as this,” he told the Globe Wednesday.

“I staked out a position 40 years ago or whatever, and really haven’t drifted from that position very much,” Evans said, “But public opinion has come around.”

The law allows adults to grow up to six plants per person, with a maximum of 12 per household. And it mandates that the state treasurer appoint, by March 2017, a three-person Cannabis Control Commission to regulate the new industry. That agency must put forward regulations — on everything from packaging requirements meant to keep kids out of marijuana-infused food to minimum standards for employment in pot shops — by the middle of September 2017.

But the framework is likely to be tinkered with by politicians who believe it does not sufficiently protect public health and safety. Top leaders have discussed the prospect of delaying the opening of stores beyond the planned January 2018 date to give policy makers more time to get the implementation of legalization right.

For law enforcement, the journey ahead may be the most rocky, especially in the next year.

Massachusetts Public Safety Secretary Daniel Bennett sent a letter to the head of the State Police Wednesday offering officials guidance on the new rules.

He explained the nuances of what kind of marijuana transfers are legal. Giving away up to an ounce of the drug without remuneration or public advertisement is OK.

Giving away marijuana to minors: illegal. “Gifting” pot and then receiving payment later, or reciprocal “gifts” of pot and items of value: illegal. Selling outside the regulated market: illegal.

He outlined the vast complexities of the home-growing provision, too.

Growing up to six plants per person in your primary residence, with a limit of 12 per household? Fine.

Growing more than 12 plants in a residence: Subject to criminal prosecution and sanctions.

And Bennett noted parts of the law that will change what has been standard police practice for decades.

It will “no longer be lawful for police to seize small quantities of marijuana for forfeiture, as has been past practice, as these small quantities will no longer be considered contraband,” the secretary wrote.

The guidance could help minimize complications for police in the new world that dawns Thursday, and avoid problems law enforcement in earlier legalization states faced.

Sergeant Scott Pendleton, who leads the four-person marijuana enforcement team in the Aurora, Colo., Police Department, let out a sigh when asked this week what advice he would give police in Massachusetts.

“You open the doors to a lot of people growing in the homes. And it’s going to be a challenge, a real challenge, for law enforcement to make sure people are adhering to the 12-plant limit,” he said. “You’re going to see an increase in illegal cultivation and smuggling out of state. There’s going to have to be a concerted effort by law enforcement to go after it because it’s a big money business. They’ll need the equipment and they’ll need the manpower.”

In his city of 360,000 people — slightly more than half the population of Boston — Pendleton said the department has investigated 167 home-growing operations this year. The majority were found to be in violation of city ordinance or state law. And Aurora police, this year alone, have seized nearly 12,000 plants and almost a ton of marijuana overall.

Legalization “just opens the floodgates for a lot of abuse,” he said.

As for advice?

“Get these procedures in place before you have to work backwards,” he said. “Learn from what we’ve gone through in Colorado and try and avoid the pitfalls we’ve encountered.”

Lisa Tuite of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Joshua Miller can be reached at joshua.miller@globe.com.