Pubdate: Fri, 09 Mar 2012 Source: Valley Advocate (Easthampton, MA) Copyright: 2012 New Mass Media Contact: http://www.valleyadvocate.com/ Details: http://www.mapinc.org/media/1520 Author: Maureen Turner Cited: Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition POT TOLERANCE Is Legalization Of Marijuana On The Horizon For Massachusetts? Earlier this week, Dick Evans headed to the Statehouse for a legislative hearing on a bill he drafted that would legalize marijuana and make it subject to the same kinds of government oversight that are now applied to alcohol. It was the third time Evans' bill had had its day before state lawmakers. The first was in 1981, and the effort "was hooted out of the Statehouse," Evans, a Northampton attorney and long-time advocate for reforming drug laws, recently recalled. The second was in 2009, and the bill-while not greeted with quite the same level of derision- once again failed to go anywhere. Evans knows that this latest effort won't succeed, either, he told the Advocate before this week's hearing (which took place after the paper went to press). Still, he noted, there is at least one significant sign of progress: while he filed the 1981 and 2009 versions of the bill himself, this time the bill has a legislative sponsor: state Rep. Ellen Story (D-Amherst), who agreed to file the bill after 69 percent of voters in her district approved a non-binding public policy question in support of state regulation and taxation of marijuana sales. "Of course the bill's not going anywhere," Evans said. But the hearing, he said, provides an opportunity for reformers to make their case in a public forum and to acknowledge the legislative sponsors (in addition to Story, the lead sponsor, the bill is co-sponsored by three eastern Mass. Democrats) for taking on an issue that most of their colleagues are loath to touch. It's also an opportunity to underscore the message that's being sent, loud and clear, by voters: that they're ready for meaningful changes to marijuana laws. "I think the big story is, voters are getting way ahead of legislators on this issue," Evans said. In 2010, public-policy questions supporting legalization were on the ballots in nine legislative districts around the state, and passed in each one by firm majorities. (Locally, in addition to Story's 3rd Hampshire constituents, 69 percent of voters in the 1st Franklin district, represented by Democrat Stephen Kulik, voted in favor of the question.) Two years earlier, Massachusetts voters passed a referendum that decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana by adults. And in this fall's election, voters are expected to have the opportunity to legalize the medical use of marijuana. Evans' "Cannabis Regulation and Taxation Act" would allow the commercial sale of marijuana to adults by licensed retailers in one- ounce packages. Marijuana could be sold in its pure form only, not as an additive to food or drinks. Retailers would not be allowed to advertise, and they would be taxed by the state, at a rate of $10 per one percent THC- tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive component in the cannabis plant -per ounce. Under the proposed law, the drug could not be sold to minors, and existing laws related to driving while under the influence would not be affected. Supporters say the change would save on law enforcement spending, bring welcome revenue into the state's coffers, and create a sensible way for the government to regulate pot, as it does alcohol. While the Massachusetts bill is unlikely to pass, in other states, similar efforts are moving forward. Voters in both Colorado and Washington state will have the opportunity to vote on taxation and regulation measures in November, and activists in several other states are also working to get similar questions on their ballots. In addition, seven states are considering constitutional amendments against marijuana prohibition laws, according to a survey compiled by Evans. While Massachusetts' taxation and regulation bill appears destined to go nowhere, there's a very strong likelihood that a medical marijuana question will come before voters this fall. In January, the Massachusetts Secretary of State's office confirmed that reform activists had collected enough petition signatures-80,710, about 12,000 more than needed-for the question to appear on the ballot. By law, the state Legislature now has until May 2 to approve the bill; if legislators fail to act on the issue-as Evans and others expect they will-supporters will then have until July 1 to collect another 11,485 signatures to get the question on the November ballot. The bill would allow patients with medical conditions including glaucoma and cancer to legally obtain up to a 60-day supply of marijuana for medical use with the approval of a doctor. Distribution would be regulated by the Mass. Department of Public Health and would take place at up to 35 authorized dispensaries, with at least one in each county. The medical use of marijuana is already legal in 16 states, including Rhode Island and Maine, as well as in Washington, D.C. As of last month, legislation to legalize medical marijuana was pending in 17 states, according to ProCon.org, a nonprofit that does research projects on controversial issues. Reformers have reason to feel optimistic about the medical marijuana question. Earlier this year, MassCann, the commonwealth's chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML, released the results of a public opinion poll that showed respondents supporting significant changes in marijuana policy. While the poll didn't ask questions about medical marijuana, it did ask about the legalization of marijuana sales to adults-a more dramatic reform that, presumably, would turn off some voters who would support its more limited availability for cancer patients and other gravely ill people. Nonetheless, according to the poll results, 58 percent of respondents said they would support "a ballot question that legalized marijuana and regulated it in the same manner as other agricultural commodities but prohibited sale to underage persons." And 62 percent said they would support a regulation and taxation bill like Evans'. (The poll, conducted by DAPA Research Inc., questioned 600 Massachusetts voters by phone and had a margin of error of plus or minus four percent.) "The data indicates that Massachusetts voters are more ready than voters in any other state to end prohibition and establish reasonable regulation of cannabis cultivation and commerce for all purposes," MassCann's Steven Epstein said in announcing the results. Another optimistic sign for reformers: the passage, by a strong 65 to 35 percent, of the 2008 ballot initiative that decriminalized the possession of one ounce or less of marijuana by adults. (Instead, those found in possession face a $100 civil fine.) Time and again, Evans said, voters have signaled their support for marijuana reform. "Why don't we hear those resounding voices for reform outside the privacy of the voting booth? That's the big question; that's the big disconnect," he said. "To me, it's a simple word: fear." Evans regularly hears from people who say they back his reform work but don't dare speak their support publicly. "I'd love to, but my boss might hear about it; the other parents at school might hear about it," they tell him. "My name might end up on a list. The mailman might bring me a piece of mail with the 'm-word' on it." Lawmakers, likewise, typically try to steer clear of the issue, Evans added. "Everyone knows what politicians want when it comes to marijuana: to change the subject," he said. Instead, they've ceded the issue to voters, who, a mounting pile of evidence suggests, are ready for changes for reasons that go beyond their personal interest-do they smoke pot, or not?-but that also consider bigger social and economic issues. In addition to criminal justice questions, Evan said, there are also important economic issues connected to reform. Legalizing marijuana, he noted, could help create jobs in the hemp industry and could raise revenue for struggling states and municipalities through taxation, while cutting down on spending to arrest and prosecute people for marijuana possession. "If we're serious about cutting the size and cost of government and reducing waste, how can we ignore the utter futility of marijuana law enforcement?" he asked. "Marijuana has become an inextricable part of our culture." Once upon a time, Evans said, the debate over marijuana was depicted as a battle between people who use pot and those who don't. But that's changed over the years. "The two sides are not pot smokers versus non- pot smokers. ... Today, it's pot-tolerant-whether they smoke or not, but people who can tolerate responsible use of marijuana-and those who can't tolerate it," he said. "I think the pot-tolerant is the growing side."?