With the state’s top politicians joining forces to defeat a probable referendum legalizing the recreational use of marijuana in Massachusetts, the discussion once again is centering on who is in favor of legalization and who is not. But that’s the wrong question. The real question is: If residents vote for legalization — and they probably will, given that medical marijuana was overwhelmingly approved in 2012 — what should the policy look like?
Instead of setting up for a bitter battle, opponents and proponents should work together to develop a marijuana policy that gives voters what they want while also limiting risk.
The policy should be clear and evidence-based. Those who oppose legalization fear that it will increase use and, in turn, addiction, particularly in youth. While that is a reasonable fear, evidence does not support it: According to a recent paper published in the journal The Lancet Psychiatry, medical marijuana has not led to increases in the rate of use compared to states without this policy. Similarly, while the data on the effects of recreational marijuana legalization are limited, a study published by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration showed that Colorado has not seen a significant increase in use since implementing legalization. Let’s be clear, marijuana use is on the rise, but it is on the rise everywhere, and marijuana policies have not changed that.
There are valid concerns that alcohol and tobacco companies may get involved in the marijuana business after legalization. Several of these companies have shameful histories of targeting vulnerable populations, so Massachusetts politicians should limit advertising and packaging to keep marijuana away from those under 21. We must learn from the states with legalized marijuana and prohibit celebrity endorsements as well as ensure that packaging is child-proof and free of imagery specifically aimed at young people.
The current ballot initiative, written by the pro-marijuana Campaign To Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Massachusetts, has several key weaknesses. The initiative’s proposed effective tax rate of 12 percent is far lower than the effective tax rates of 27 to 44 percent in states with legalized marijuana, meaning that Massachusetts will leave a considerable amount of money on the table. Politicians could make it clear that they will amend the proposed rate to a smart effective tax rate of 25 percent. This would cover oversight, policy research, addiction prevention, and treatment — all concerns of those who oppose legalization.
The ballot initiative is also vague on who will oversee marijuana in the Commonwealth. No one with any ties to pro- or antimarijuana groups should serve on the Cannabis Control Commission. State politicians must ensure this commission contains a diverse group that has residents’ safety as their priority.
The initiative also fails to address the challenges of determining impaired driving resulting from marijuana use. Law enforcement officials lament the lack of a marijuana breathalyzer to assist in evaluating impairment. As we await the development of such a device, politicians should advocate for Massachusetts to utilize the blood-testing system Colorado has developed.
Polls show voters are in favor of marijuana being legalized. Both proponents and opponents should work together now to give them the best policy in the country.
Dr. Kevin P. Hill is director of the substance abuse consultation service in McLean Hospital’s Division of Alcohol and Drug Abuse. He is also author of “Marijuana: The Unbiased Truth about the World’s Most Popular Weed.’’