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  • Benjamin Makishima

The truth behind Question 4 in Massachusetts

On Sept. 21, 2016, Margaret Holcomb departed from her home in the picturesque college town of Amherst, Massachusetts, likely assuming that she would go about her Wednesday just like any other. Little did she know, as reported by the Daily Hampshire Gazette, the state police, as well as the Massachusetts National Guard, had already zeroed in on her residence that morning. The object of their focus: a lone marijuana plant growing in the backyard. By the time that the officers had dismounted from their helicopters, set aside their thermal imaging equipment, and dug up the plant in question, Holcomb hadn’t even arrived yet. The only one in the house was her adult son Tim as well as his sister, the two of them eating a late lunch. It was only later that the police discovered that Holcomb was growing the plant to ease her arthritis pain, though she did not have the proper permits to do so. While, according to Northampton attorney Michael Cutler, these kinds of raids are common in the area, many have begun questioning the necessity of deploying such a level of resource and manpower, particularly in such a sparsely populated area, in the service of enforcing such minor infringements marijuana laws.

The question of government waste is just one of the many issues coming to the forefront as the state of Massachusetts draws ever nearer to Nov. 8. Election Day will mark the end not only of a hotly contested presidential race, but also of a controversial campaign surrounding Question 4, one of four referendum questions on the ballot, and whether or not, as the question proposes, the state government should legalize recreational marijuana for adults 21 and over. Most opposition to the policy is centered on its potential effects on the youth of the commonwealth while the predominant rhetoric in favor of the policy has been focused, particularly in the last few weeks, on good governance: namely, the idea that legalizing recreational marijuana will allow for more efficient use of government resources as well as increased social equity.

For context: the question itself is not completely groundbreaking. Medical marijuana is perfectly legal in the state, and the possession of an ounce or less of marijuana is not subject to any punishment beyond a small fine. In the status quo, possession of the drug is already legal, or at least not subject to harsh criminal punishment, under certain circumstances.

Yes on 4, the leading group behind the push to legalize, published on their website the main reasons why legalization is beneficial to society. While taxation of marijuana is a prominent issue, most of the arguments in favor are centered around government efficiency and social equity. Included in their platform is the idea that marijuana itself is expected to curb the opioid epidemic sweeping through the state by providing an alternative to commonly abused opiates like Oxycontin. Additionally, the Yes on 4 argues that marijuana clogs our judicial system with marijuana cases and uses up valuable government time.

Additionally, a recent report issued by the ACLU of Massachusetts pushed social equity issues to the forefront. The Oct. 2016 study stated that people of color were three times more likely to be harmed by strict cannabis enforcement policy. Additionally, the Holcomb household has not been the only one subject to invasion: recently, the state police raided on a house in Wendell, Massachusetts owned by a couple that actually had the proper documentation to grow marijuana. These raids have brought attention to the fact that meaningful government spending, like investment in education or drug treatment, is being instead funneled into massive raids on operations that pose no threat to anybody. Many supporters of Yes on 4 believe that legalizing recreational marijuana could solve this problem, simply by taking the issue out of law enforcement hands in terms of adult use.

Nonetheless, opponents of legalizing recreational cannabis stand strong. The anti-legalization camp, otherwise known as The Campaign for a Safe and Healthy Massachusetts, includes major state political figures such as Governor Charlie Baker and Mayor of Boston Marty Walsh. This campaign contends on its website that recreational marijuana will not only put young kids at risk of exposure early on, but will also increase the incidence of marijuana-related car accidents. Additionally, as relates to social equity, The Campaign for a Safe and Healthy Massachusetts does not respond to most of the Yes on 4 campaign’s statements. The anti-legalization group does, however mention that, in Colorado, a state in which recreational marijuana has already been passed, arrests of people of color have increased and low income communities have been the main sites of marijuana dispensaries.

While both sides have fought viciously, an Oct. 27 poll from the Boston Herald and Suffolk University shows that the Yes on 4 campaign is ahead by approximately 7 percentage points with likely voters. Ultimately, data on legalized recreational marijuana is unclear and largely nonexistent due to the recent nature of its introduction to public debate. However, it is clear that the issue is likely to pass, and because the current information is so hard interpret, the voters of Massachusetts can only sit and wait to find out exactly what might come of legal recreational cannabis.

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