One hundred and five years after the state outlawed cannabis, 1.8 million voters in Massachusetts voted yes on a ballot question, legalizing recreational cannabis last November 8th. Opposition was substantial, and included the Catholic Church, business groups, law enforcement, other civic leaders, and 1.5 million voters. Of course, this resistance is unsurprising in a state founded by Puritans, a group who came to America because they felt other 17th century English Christians were, essentially, too relaxed. While socially liberal these days, the state is still not known as a hotbed for progressiveness. The real surprise is the success of the initiative despite conservative forces.

Alongside much less populous Maine (who voted for legalization the same day) Massachusetts is also the first state east of the Mississippi to legalize cannabis (Washington DC being not quite a state and not quite having full legalization). While it has admittedly come a long way from its Puritan roots, in many ways Massachusetts is a bastion of east coast traditionalism, sandwiched between places like Connecticut and New Hampshire. While California’s legalization was in many ways only a matter of time, the Massachusetts vote came as a shock to a lot of people. It appears that the current tide of legalization has spread far beyond its western birthplace. How exactly did this happen?

 


The Road to Legalization

 

Dick Evans, who worked for nearly 40 years to legalize cannabis in his home state, attributes the success to the right mixture of old fashioned democratic pressure, and to the changing tide of public opinion.

“The success of this initiative represents the triumph of citizen action in the face of legislative intransigence,” according to Evans, who is 72. In 1981, Evan’s own bill for legalization was shouted down in a Beacon Hill hearing.

“The citizens have achieved this expansion of liberty using the initiative process which was conceived precisely for purposes such as this,” he said, speaking to the Boston Globe. “I staked out a position 40 years ago or whatever, and really haven’t drifted from that position very much. But public opinion has come around.”

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There was some precedent for the outcome. In just a few years, Massachusetts had progressed out of the dark ages of prohibition. In 2008, voters decriminalized possession, and then approved medical cannabis in 2012. But the progress has largely occurred from the grassroots up, with the political establishment lagging behind popular opinion. This has, of course, been the case nationwide - but in Massachusetts, the gap has been especially wide. After the vote, legislators actually put the entire process on hold for a year while they sorted out the details. Meanwhile, public support has risen to 63 percent, according to one recent poll. The vote initially passed 54 to 46 percent.

According to cannabis entrepreneur Jaime Lewis, a board member at the National Cannabis Industry Association, and founder and chairwoman of the Cannabis Business Alliance, legislators and regulators there have been slow to accept the concept of safe adult use. She says the political climate is a stark contrast to Colorado or California, where she has worked in the past.
“Coming over to Massachusetts has been amazing to me, the miseducation, the war on drugs, the propaganda,” said Lewis. “Crazy enough, I feel like I’m supposed to be here, to show Massachusetts how the cannabis industry is engaging in the state, showing them how this can [be a] benefit.”

Since the vote, substantial changes have been made to the initiative passed by voters. Instead of a 12 percent tax, the law as signed by the governor mandates a 20 percent tax, including 17 percent for the state and 3 percent for municipalities. A panel of 5 officials is in charge of implementing the law, with July of next year as a target for sales to begin. Four of its members actually opposed the legalization initiative. But the fifth, Shaleen Title, is an experienced legalization advocate who helped write the ballot measure. Her appointment to the panel represents the first time that an activist who helped create legislation will play a key role in its implementation.

According to Title:

Photo of Shaleen Title, one of five panel officials in charge of implementing the law.

Photo of Shaleen Title, one of five panel officials in charge of implementing the law.

“I think it's essential to have at least one person on the commission who has a historical understanding of the legal and cultural context around marijuana. To my mind, that holistic approach is crucial in order to fairly implement the law.”

Why has Massachusetts soared ahead of its neighbors when it comes to cannabis law? Besides the universal incentive of revenue, it is worth considering that the state has been among the hardest hit by the opioid epidemic. There were over 2,000 unintentional overdoses there in 2016. In 2014, Massachusetts had more opiate related hospital visits per capita than any other state among 30 studied by the Maryland-based Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project.

Supporting a wealth of anecdotal evidence, a study this year found that states with legal or medical cannabis saw an average 23 percent decline in hospital visits for opiate abuse and dependence, and a 13 percent drop in hospital visits for opioid overdoses. There is no shortage of good reasons to legalize cannabis, but first, the public has to see past a century of propaganda and misinformation. Luckily, this seems to be finally taking place all over the country. The only question is when the entire political establishment will catch up.