My first run-in with marijuana prohibition came in 1970, when I was arrested for possession of less than one-quarter ounce. Fortunately, my case was dismissed because the officer conducted an illegal search.
I often wonder where I would be if I had not been so lucky. Would I have been admitted to the bar? Hired as an assistant attorney general? Appointed as director of a state council on substance abuse and prevention?
Marijuana arrests turn countless lives upside down every year. I escaped my encounter unscathed, but it had a lasting impact on how I view this issue.
I could not (and still cannot) believe we have laws punishing adults simply for consuming a substance less harmful than alcohol. Marijuana is certainly not harmless, but it is undeniably less addictive than alcohol, less damaging to the body, and less likely to contribute to violence, according to several studies.
Law enforcement officials have more important things to do than enforcing failed marijuana laws. In addition, the laws are hypocritical, unpopular, and inconsistently applied — African-Americans in Massachusetts are nearly four times more likely to be cited for marijuana possession than whites, despite statistics that show similar use patterns.
Massachusetts voters took a significant step forward in 2008 when they chose fines over criminal penalties for small amounts of marijuana. But could you imagine being cited and fined for possessing a bottle of wine or a six-pack?
Additionally, decriminalization didn’t address the biggest problem with prohibition: the illicit market. Forcing sales underground ensures that criminals control the product instead of authorities. As a result, marijuana is sold by street dealers who don’t ask for IDs and often expose consumers to more harmful illegal substances.
Enough is enough.
An initiative on the November 2016 ballot would end marijuana prohibition in Massachusetts and replace it with a system that taxes and regulates marijuana like alcohol. The attorney general’s office certified our petition this week.
The measure would allow adults 21 and older to possess limited amounts of marijuana and grow a limited number of marijuana plants in their homes, similar to home-brewing. It would remain illegal to use marijuana in public or drive under the influence, and it would not affect employers’ rights to develop workplace marijuana policies.
The measure would establish a regulated system of licensed marijuana businesses that test, label, and package products appropriately, and sell them only to customers with proof of age. A state commission (similar to the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission) would create and enforce provisions governing cultivation, sale, product manufacturing, and testing, and cities and towns would have the ability to regulate or prohibit marijuana establishments. Marijuana sales would be subject to a 3.75 percent state excise tax (in addition to standard sales tax), and localities would be allowed to levy an additional tax of up to 2 percent.
This is a large and complex policy shift. But it’s an important one, and long overdue. We know it can be done. Colorado and Washington have successfully implemented similar initiatives, and Alaska and Oregon are on track to do the same.
Massachusetts is a sensible state, and it deserves a sensible marijuana policy.
Will Luzier, a former assistant attorney general and executive director of the Massachusetts Interagency Council on Substance Abuse and Prevention, is campaign manager of the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Massachusetts.