Metro

The marijuana war has gone local, and pot advocates are losing — badly

Milford, MA -- 09/16/17 -- Frankie Pinedo protests against a proposed ban on licensed cannabis companies in the town of Milford, on September 16, 2017, in Milford, Massachusetts. Milford Citizens for Fairness held a rally to remind residents to vote against the ban this Tuesday. (Kayana Szymczak for The Boston Globe)
Kayana Szymczak for The Boston Globe
Frankie Pinedo protested against a proposed ban on licensed cannabis companies in the town of Milford.

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The fight over the legalization of marijuana in Massachusetts isn’t over. But one side has already gone home.

Last November, a well-funded and well-organized coalition of advocates led by the national Marijuana Policy Project persuaded more than 1.7 million Massachusetts voters to approve Question 4 and establish a system of regulated cannabis commerce.

Since then, though, a new front has opened over legalized marijuana — dozens of fronts, actually, in cities and towns across the state, where voters and local officials have already imposed moratoriums and bans on licensed pot firms or are set to vote on similar measures this fall.

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So who is battling them? Almost no one, it seems.

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No central group has emerged to oversee the local political battles or provide money, muscle, or advertising support to the few and often inexperienced supporters in each community trying to push back. It’s also a lot more work to staff separate efforts in dozens of communities, where door-to-door politicking is more effective than a broad media campaign to a statewide audience.

“I’m not sure I have the resources to beat these prohibitionists all over the state in time,” said Kamani Jefferson, who leads the Mass. Recreational Consumer Council, a nascent statewide group representing pot consumers. “Some of these votes are happening next week.”

As a result, the track record of marijuana advocates in local votes is abysmal: They have defeated fewer than 10 of more than 100 anti-pot measures, according to the latest count by the Massachusetts Municipal Association.

Marijuana opponents, including conservatives, parent groups, and public health advocates, have been helped in many cases by antipot local officials.

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The next battleground is in Milford on Tuesday, when voters will decide whether to ban recreational pot businesses in the town.

Under changes that state legislators made to the marijuana law in July, elected officials in the 91 communities where voters opposed Question 4 can impose bans or moratoriums on their own, without holding a vote. Leaders of cities and towns in which voters supported Question 4 must hold a referendum if they want to ban, freeze, or sharply limit the number of licensed cannabis operations.

Marijuana advocates know these restrictions will profoundly influence the availability and price of legal pot, and in turn, whether the black market fizzles out or continues to thrive.

But some are pessimistic about their chances this fall and are instead focusing on the high-turnout 2020 presidential election, when they expect it will be easier to marshal votes to overturn bans adopted by communities.

“Worst case, we have 2020, when we can set up referendums in every municipality to get it back,” Jefferson said.

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Even keeping track of all the proposed bans and moratoriums has been difficult, as municipalities don’t submit votes by town councils or similar bodies to any central authority.

“We might not win a lot of these battles simply because of our inability to keep tabs on municipalities across the state,” Jefferson said. “Unless you live in the town, they’re not really blasting the information out.”

The Marijuana Policy Project, which had been focused on state-level politics, said local fights aren’t within its charter.

“Like any activist organization, MPP has to make strategic decisions on where its resources go,” said Jim Borghesani, the group’s spokesman in Massachusetts. “It’s a logistically daunting task to organize and coordinate multiple grass-roots campaigns.

“That said, we’re well aware of the local-level threats to a regulated and taxed system, and our involvement may expand,” he added.

Borghesani recently joined forces with Regulate Cape Cod, a nascent group led by liquor store chain owner Arthur “A.J.” Luke that is trying to galvanize opposition to proposed restrictions in Cape Cod communities. Luke voted against Question 4 — he said he lumped marijuana in with other, more dangerous illicit drugs — but he later had a change of heart after reading a magazine article about the history of pot prohibition and the political issues behind the war on drugs. He now hopes to open a pot store.

“The only way you get black-market individuals off the street is by having it legalized and convenient,” Luke said. “Every town should have one or two [pot stores]. It can’t be every fifth town, so you have to drive all over to procure it legally.”

On the Cape, town meetings in Mashpee and Brewster have votes scheduled this fall to limit pot sales.

So far, Regulate Cape Cod’s campaign has mostly consisted of sending packets of information to officials in towns considering restrictions.

“We’re not really getting through to anyone,” Luke conceded. “We’ve made calls, but they don’t call back.”

Other marijuana supporters are hopeful of a big showing from younger voters, who typically skip local elections, and “closet” marijuana supporters reluctant to express their views publicly.

That’s the hope of proponents in Milford, where officials — who uniformly opposed legalization — are holding a community-wide referendum to prohibit cannabis businesses, even though 52 percent of town voters approved Question 4.

Thanks in part to financial support from the Sage Cannabis medical marijuana dispensary and ProVerde Laboratories marijuana testing facility in the town, Milford boasts perhaps the best-organized local pro-marijuana group: Milford Citizens for Fairness.

Even so, the group was scrambling to make hand-printed yard signs as the vote approached. And it faces a far more experienced opponent in Milford CARES , an anti-cannabis coalition originally organized several years ago to defeat a proposal for a casino in town.

Milford CARES has run ads on local broadcast media and is planning a robo-calling effort. It was afforded use of Town Hall to hold a forum on the referendum that Milford Citizens for Fairness said was more like an antipot campaign rally. The group’s main argument is that pot businesses would undermine the town’s image as a haven for families seeking a strong school system.

“We have a brand-new youth center, a state-of-the-art library — all these beautiful things to attract families — and now we’re going to bring retail pot shops in?” said Milford Selectman Mike Walsh.

Pot proponents are also worried about the referendum’s wording: Voting “yes” indicates support for the ban, not “yes” to marijuana companies.

“There’s a lot of confusion about what’s on the ballot,” said Bryan Cole, a leader of Milford Citizens for Fairness. “We want to make sure that the will of the people is actually represented.”

Milford Citizens for Fairness held a rally to urge residents to vote against the ban.
Kayana Szymczak for The Boston Globe
Milford Citizens for Fairness held a rally to urge residents to vote against the ban.

Meanwhile, there is little sign that many marijuana businesses are joining the battle, despite having the most at stake. Jefferson, the activist, said prospective operators of recreational businesses fear alienating local officials whose support they will eventually need.

“It should be the top priority in their business plans,” Jefferson said, “but they’re unsure about coming out and [campaigning].”

Asked why they have struggled so much in local contests despite winning over most Massachusetts voters in November, cannabis proponents repeatedly cited one simple explanation: Local campaigns are fundamentally more challenging than statewide ones.

“It’s more personal and direct, it’s less theoretical, and it takes more work,” said Richard Elrick, a former Barnstable town councilor who has joined the Regulate Cape Cod group to help lobby officials and support pro-marijuana candidates for local office. “You need people who live in town to show up to public meetings and make phone calls.”

Add in that local elections draw a smaller, more selective group of voters, Elrick said, “and I’d be the first to say we have our work cut out for us.”

Dan Adams can be reached at daniel.adams@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Adams86.