Pubdate: Tue, 26 Apr 2016
Source: Mail Tribune, The (Medford, OR)
Copyright: 2016 The Mail Tribune
Note: Only prints LTEs from within it's circulation area, 200 word count limit
Author: Rick Holmes
Note: Rick Holmes writes for GateHouse Media and the MetroWest Daily
News in Massachusetts.


The marijuana legalization question on the ballots in about a dozen 
states this fall may be a simple yes or no proposition. But today's 
conversation about marijuana is more complicated than you'd think, 
especially compared to the mostly one-sided debates of the war-on-drugs era.

The campaigns in Massachusetts are already heating up. The 
proponents, a local affiliate of the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana 
Like Alcohol, have been at it for a year, collecting signatures and 
building a base of support. The opposition opened its campaign this 
month, with Gov. Charlie Baker and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh taking 
the lead and a new group, the Campaign for a Safe and Healthy 
Massachusetts, is backing them up.

The themes of the opposition are familiar: Pot is bad - more potent 
and dangerous than the stuff you smoked back in college - and 
especially bad for kids. The initiative is funded by bad, for-profit 
corporations that, like tobacco companies, will profit by getting 
kids hooked. Marijuana leads to harder drugs, especially heroin.

But the context is different today. The debate is no longer between 
marijuana and no marijuana; all agree marijuana is here to stay. The 
question is whether it will continue to be distributed through the 
black market or through a legal, taxed and regulated industry.

This is Reefer Madness revised. No longer are the opponents 
pretending that one puff of marijuana will turn an adult into a 
monster. Now it's all about the children, and the old argument that 
marijuana is bad for kids is stronger than ever. Research confirms 
that marijuana use, especially heavy use, has lasting effects on 
adolescent brain development.

But there are lots of things that are bad for children but just fine 
for adults. Should they all be illegal? More to the point, is a black 
market better at protecting children than licensed and regulated retailers?

"Our opponents seem to prefer that criminals control the marijuana 
market and sell untested, unlabeled products to people of any age," 
said Jim Borghesani, spokesman for the proponents.

Opponents like Baker and state Sen. Jason Lewis, the Senate's point 
person on marijuana issues, point to Colorado as an example of the 
dangers of legalization, but Colorado isn't exactly cooperating. A 
poll last fall found 53 percent of residents say legal weed has been 
good for the state, with 39 percent saying it has been bad.

As for the children, Colorado state officials reported this week that 
there has been no significant increase in the use of marijuana by 
those under 21 since the drug was legalized in 2012.

The link between marijuana and heroin is more complicated. Baker and 
Walsh have worked hard to stem the opioid addiction epidemic, and 
it's often the first thing they bring up when talk turns to marijuana reform.

But they know as well as anyone that it wasn't marijuana that fueled 
the current wave of heroin addiction. Four out of five heroin users 
started with prescription painkillers.

The more interesting question is whether marijuana is part of the 
solution to the opioid crisis. On April 19, advocates asked 
regulators in Maine to make it the first state to allow opioid 
addiction as condition for receiving medical marijuana, citing 
testimony from addicts in recovery who say smoking pot helps keep 
them from relapsing.

There's also the question of whether marijuana is a healthier 
alternative to opioids for treating chronic pain. A new survey of 
medical marijuana users in Massachusetts, Vermont and Maine found 
that two-thirds have reduced their use of other medications, 
especially opioids, to control their pain, the Maine Sunday Telegram reports.

That's why Sen. Elizabeth Warren and a handful of her colleagues have 
joined the calls for cannabis to be removed from the Drug Enforcement 
Administration's Schedule I controlled substances list. They want to 
clear the barriers for new research on cannabis-based pain treatment. 
In response, three federal agencies promised to make a determination 
on the issue by mid-summer. That could pave the way for President 
Barack Obama to deschedule cannabis before he leaves office, which 
would be the most significant change in federal marijuana policy 
since Richard Nixon launched the war on drugs.

It's no surprise, then, that some of the biggest backers of the 
groups opposing state legalization initiatives are major 
pharmaceutical companies, including those who sell opioid 
painkillers. The Massachusetts organization has yet to file campaign 
finance records, but those bankrolling the opposition in other states 
include drug companies, unions representing police and prison guards, 
for-profit prison operators and the liquor industry.

There's a lot of money on the line, with one recent report predicting 
legal cannabis in Massachusetts could be a $1.1 billion industry by 
2020. Opponents warn of profit-seeking capitalists pushing 
legalization, but the liquor and pharmaceutical industries are 
profit-driven as well, and so are the cartels and dealers that have 
been supplying the market for decades.

It's those profits, along with the dreams of stoners and the fears of 
parents, that promise an intense - and expensive - campaign to see if 
Massachusetts will be the next state to legalize marijuana.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom