With a majority vote this November, Massachusetts could add its name to the growing list of states with legal recreational marijuana. Question 4 on Massachusetts ballots would allow adults of age 21 and older to purchase, consume, and grow marijuana, and would establish a system to tax and regulate its sales. Though the measure has a very real chance of passing, many voters are uncertain—what exactly could legalized marijuana mean for Massachusetts?

Since changes in marijuana laws in states like Colorado and Washington, the question of legalization has become less a matter of value judgments now that multiple states are beginning to show the real world consequences of legalization. The nature of this state’s political agenda combined with the results from states with legalized recreational marijuana suggest that a vote of yes on Question 4 has the potential to effect significant growth for Massachusetts in the key domains of health, racial discrimination, and government revenue.


Let’s start with some classic debates—namely, the harmfulness of frequent marijuana consumption and the likelihood of legalization creating a “gateway” for its use among youth.

Opinions on the first issue vary. While marijuana can be an effective remedy for serious health concerns like anxiety, PTSD, or chronic pain, the general consensus is that it can inhibit brain development or cause damage to other major organs. According to a report from the National Institute of Drug Abuse, marijuana consumption “may reduce thinking, memory, and learning functions” in the long run. The report also warns of increased heart rate and lung irritation, disease, or infection.

The threat of brain development is obviously greater among young adults. Despite many warnings that legalization would increase consumption among young adults, however, fewer teens in Colorado have reported using the drug since its legalization. A report from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment shows that 43 percent of teens had used the drug in 2009, whereas only 38 percent had in 2015. This is likely due to the elimination of black-market activity in the state, which served to benefit teenage consumers. While state-licensed dealers require a government-issued ID, back-alley dealers do not.

That said, adult consumption has increased in states that have ended the prohibition. The question then becomes one of the role of government in encouraging healthy behavior. While this is a matter of political philosophy, Question 4 advocates point out that marijuana consumption rates are rising despite prohibition enforcement, and that marijuana is treated differently than more dangerous products like alcohol and tobacco.

As for the question of whether marijuana is a “gateway” drug, there are two schools of thought. One explanation for the gateway effect is that marijuana’s pharmacological properties and physiological impact will lead to greater consumption of other, harder drugs. The National Institute on Drug Abuse found that users of marijuana have a heightened behavioral response to other drugs, a phenomenon called cross-sensitization. This means consumers of marijuana may in fact be more inclined to take other drugs. The authors of this study also note, however, that cross-sensitization is not unique to marijuana. Alcohol and nicotine induce a similar response.

The second explanation for the gateway effect is that marijuana introduces consumers to the world of illegal drugs, making them less likely to shy away from harder substances. This reasoning then suggests that legalization would close the gateways, so to speak, since users wouldn’t have the experience of acquiring an illegal substance, further separating hard-drug consumption from legal activity.

Overlooked in this debate is the link between marijuana accessibility and opioid abuse, though for an increasing number of people it means the difference between life and death.

Sgt. Stephen Mandile of Uxbridge, Massachusetts came home from his tour in Iraq with five ruptured discs from a Humvee accident. Since returning, he has been put on 57 different medications for the pain, ten of which were opioids, including morphine, oxycodone, vicodin, and more. The drugs led not only to addiction, but to frequent thoughts of suicide. “Being on all those medications,” he told the HPR, “the easiest thought that popped in my head was ‘just end it. Just forget it.’”

Mandile’s wife, after quitting her job in order to watch after him, urged him to try something new. Mandile turned to cannabis, and within five months he was off all other drugs.

The only problem was, the cost of medicine came purely out of pocket. The VA promised to cover all costs for Mandile, who was fully disabled. And though they paid for the opioids that drove him to the brink of suicide, they wouldn’t cover the cannabis that was saving his life. Instead, Mandile had to pay for himself. “Here I am, using money that I’m supposed to be spending on something else beside cannabis, and also feeling like, ‘Alright, I’m going to make my family bankrupt so I can take that medicine’? It’s unfair.’”

Marijuana cost Mandile $800 a week, which was far from affordable. The response from the VA? Fentanyl. Only when a caregiver offered to pay for Mandile’s cannabis costs could he switch over completely. Though he still suffers from chronic pain, things are looking up. “Mental state-wise, I’m a whole different person,” he says.

But this path to recovery isn’t realized by many patients, veterans among them, who are stuck on opioids. Without the help from his caregiver, Mandile could still be trapped in addiction.

That marijuana is a safer alternative to opioids is indisputable. According to a University of Michigan study, it’s effective too: patients with chronic pain saw a 64 percent decrease in opioid use after being introduced to medical marijuana. Legalization of marijuana in Massachusetts would offer a way out of addiction for many of those who are prescribed opioids under state-issued health coverage, and are currently being denied help because of the state’s prohibition.

Racial Discrimination

The past few years have shown that a racial bias will persist in marijuana enforcement as long as the drug is illegal, whether criminalized or not. Decriminalization does significantly decrease arrests overall—a 2010 ACLU report showed that Massachusetts cut down on arrests for possession in the preceding decade more than any state. As the total number of arrests fell, however, the racial disparity among them rose.

Though whites and blacks use marijuana at approximately equal rates, a black person in Massachusetts is 3.9 times more likely to be arrested for possession. This figure has risen 75 percent over the decade of the state’s decriminalization. It also means Massachusetts is more racially biased than the national average, despite its relatively lenient marijuana laws.

This trend shows that relaxing punishment for marijuana use really translates to an increased targeting of black people and black communities. The disturbingly disproportionate rate of arrests contributes heavily to the racial disparity that pervades the American prison system.

According to Matt Allen, director of the Massachusetts ACLU’s field department, a leading cause of biased treatment in marijuana enforcement is “stop-and-frisk,” the policy whereby police stop, question, and sometimes search people based on suspicious behavior. The procedure is disproportionately used to target black and Latino communities. A July 2015 report shows that of all Boston police-civilian encounters, almost two thirds of those were with black people, though they only comprise only a fourth of the city population. “There’s a huge disparity in the way that our stop and frisk policies are being implemented” Allen told the HPR.

Seventy-five percent of stops in the report he referenced lacked even a reason for investigation. These unexplained stops, it is fair to assume, were initiated in large part because of the race of the suspect.

Biased police practices were not merely the result of larger criminal behavior in some communities over others. “Even after you control for factors like crime in the neighborhood and gang distribution,” Allen explained, “you still see that black people are much more likely to be stopped and frisked.” The biased treatment then continues after initiation: “Once they’re stopped they’re more likely than white people to have an invasive encounter,” says Allen.

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, black people only account for seven percent of the Massachusetts population, yet they represent a quarter of all the commonwealth’s prisoners. Given the number of possession arrests still being made after decriminalization and the size of the disparity in arrests between the races, legalization of marijuana has the potential to balance the scales in the criminal justice system in a significant way.

Government Revenue

Government revenue stands to increase from legalization by both cutting enforcement costs and by increasing tax revenue.

Massachusetts spent approximately $9 million on marijuana prohibition enforcement, according to a 2010 report. Marijuana law enforcement also diverted time of police and agencies away from deterring more serious crime. On the other hand, early-legalizing states have shown just how lucrative legalizing retail marijuana can be.

Revenue increases in Colorado, a state which has served as an experiment for those contemplating legalization, have surpassed many expectations. Recreational marijuana sales brought in $113 million in tax revenue last year, and now are expected to bring between $143 and $187 million in 2016.

The positive impact of this additional revenue in Colorado is undeniable. Revenue from a 15 percent excise tax goes toward public education, either through the Public School Fund or the BEST program, which improves public schools through a variety of renovation and reconstruction projects. A separate 10 percent sales tax applied specifically to marijuana sales is primarily used to finance the Marijuana Tax Cash Fund for substance abuse programs, health care, and drug education. The remaining revenue is distributed to local governments based on their marijuana sales.

Local governments have used this extra cash to positively impact their communities. Bob Roth, a city councilor from Aurora, Colorado, explained to the HPR that “some other Colorado municipalities have chosen to just put the marijuana tax revenue into the general fund. We felt like it was very important not to do that but to hold it in a separate bucket.” Roth said this procedure was effective: “[Aurora] used those funds for very specific community-related projects that we could point to and say ‘that’s what was purchased with the marijuana tax money.’”

For Aurora this money means $4.5 million invested in homelessness prevention over three years, $2 million going toward a new public recreation center, and a small infrastructure project with remaining funds. They estimate receiving $8.1 million in revenue from 2016 marijuana sales. “You may not agree with cannabis consumption” Roth says, “but here’s the benefit of the taxes we’ve received.” And the benefit is significant.

Will the situation look similar in Massachusetts? Probably not to the same extent. Whereas Colorado sales entail a 15 percent excise tax and an additional 10 percent sales tax on the typical resale tax for most goods, Massachusetts marijuana sales will only tack on a 3.75 percent excise tax and an optional 2 percent tax at the discretion of local municipalities. Though lower taxes will increase the quantity sold, it’s unlikely that they’ll generate similar amount of revenue.

The difficulty in designing a tax plan is creating revenue without encouraging black market activity. As taxes go up, consumers look for alternative sources, and with the existing black market for marijuana, buyers are particularly likely to purchase the good illegally.

Though Massachusetts won’t see increases in revenue like those in Colorado, the gain should still be significant. State Senator Jason Lewis (D-Winchester), chairman of the Special Senate Committee on Marijuana expects $50 to 60 million in revenue annually, though he is concerned that the increased cost of regulation won’t offset these gains.

The evidence, however, shows otherwise. The Massachusetts Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission, for instance, only required a budget of $2.3 million last year, according to their 2015 fiscal year report. It seems unlikely that the Cannabis Control Commission established under Question 4 will cost much more than the ABCC, which is a much larger operation.

Results in Colorado demonstrate the overestimate from Lewis. Data from the last fiscal year shows that the enforcement cost was a little over $5 million. And though it has risen since, it remains far below $50 million. This suggests that revenue in Massachusetts has the potential to be much higher than opponents claim.

Wherever the numbers wind up, legalization takes money out of the hands of drug dealers, and gives into the funds of governments.

Image Credit: Chuck Grimmett/Flickr

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