Marijuana in Massachusetts, what happens now that it’s legal?

Recreational marijuana is legal in Massachusetts beginning Dec. 15. Photo by Brian Stalter/from Flickr
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 By Joe O’Connell
News at Northeastern

We asked asso­ciate pro­fessor Leo Beletsky, a drug policy expert who holds joint appoint­ments in the School of Law and Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ences, for his insight into what we can expect in the coming months and how President-elect Donald Trump’s admin­is­tra­tion could impact the imple­men­ta­tion of the new law.

What are the next steps to bringing legal­ized mar­i­juana to fruition on Dec. 15? And what can we expect in the months to follow?

Recreational marijuana is legal in Massachusetts beginning Dec. 15. Photo by Brian Stalter/from Flickr
Recreational marijuana is legal in Massachusetts beginning Dec. 15. Photo by Brian Stalter/from Flickr

Voters approved Ques­tion 4 by a sub­stan­tial margin, despite con­sid­er­able ambi­guity in how the mea­sure will be imple­mented. Under the pro­vi­sions, resolving much of the ambi­guity will be the job of the three-member Cannabis Con­trol Com­mis­sion, with input from a 15-member Cannabis Advi­sory Board. On Dec. 15 or shortly there­after, we can expect that newly-formed reg­u­la­tory struc­ture to begin its work of deter­mining the pre­cise reg­u­la­tions and mech­a­nisms by which mar­i­juana prod­ucts will be man­u­fac­tured, sold, and taxed. So it will be some time, likely not until 2018, until we see any retail estab­lish­ments pop­ping up around the state.

The more imme­diate effects of the law will be the legal status of mar­i­juana pos­ses­sion and indi­vidual cul­ti­va­tion. Anyone who is 21 years old or older can now pos­sess con­sid­er­able amounts of marijuana—up to 10 ounces in their pri­mary residence—and cul­ti­vate up to six plants per person, or up to 12 in a home, sub­ject to lease restric­tions. Although per­sonal pos­ses­sion of mar­i­juana was decrim­i­nal­ized in 2008 and arrests for pos­ses­sion are already rare, the new law com­pletely elim­i­nates any fines or other penal­ties and sub­stan­tially increases the quan­ti­ties threshold.

What are some common mis­con­cep­tions people have about this law?

In the lead up to Elec­tion Day, there were con­cerns about how this mea­sure will shape the vis­i­bility, mar­keting, and poten­tial expo­sure of chil­dren to mar­i­juana. The reality is that the mea­sure does not address any of these elements—they remain to be deter­mined during the rule-making phase. Based on the expe­ri­ence of states that have already legal­ized recre­ational pot use, Mass­a­chu­setts has an oppor­tu­nity to avoid some of the pit­falls. For example, in response to increased pedi­atric emer­gency room visits, Col­orado has changed the way it reg­u­lates pack­aging and dosing of edible products—something that impacts acci­dental inges­tion by kids.

Another related con­cern was that there would be a sharp increase in the number of people smoking mar­i­juana in public. This may or may not be the case because mar­i­juana smoking is still pro­hib­ited any­where cig­a­rette smoking is banned, including parks, cam­puses, and play­grounds. Of course, the enforce­ment of cig­a­rette smoking bans and public drinking is often spotty, while mar­i­juana smoking is already per­va­sive in some public spaces. So it is unclear what impact the law will have in this space. The hope is that the cost-savings and increased tax rev­enue resulting from this reform will sup­port more uni­form and equi­table enforce­ment of sen­sible public health safeguards.


Assis­tant pro­fessor Leo Beletsky. Photo by Brooks Canaday/Northeastern University

Some munic­i­pal­i­ties are trying to shut out mar­i­juana shops from their towns. How would they go about doing that and will it work?

This law aims to reg­u­late mar­i­juana in the same ways alcohol is reg­u­lated in the Bay State. Local gov­ern­ments have the authority to deter­mine zoning and other reg­u­la­tions gov­erning alcohol sales and con­sump­tion in their com­mu­ni­ties; the same mech­a­nisms will be rel­e­vant to mar­i­juana. Some Mass­a­chu­setts towns have chosen to ban liquor stores, and I sus­pect some will decide to do the same with retail mar­i­juana estab­lish­ments. As they do, they will forgo sub­stan­tial sales tax rev­enue, which will no doubt make delib­er­a­tions on this issue that much more contentious.

How could the Trump admin­is­tra­tion impact the imple­men­ta­tion of this law?

During his cam­paign, President-elect Trump stated his sup­port for states to deter­mine their own mar­i­juana poli­cies. But the future direc­tion of mar­i­juana policy on the fed­eral level is far from clear. Trump’s designee to head the Depart­ment of Jus­tice, Jeff Ses­sions, is an out­spoken critic of mar­i­juana reform. If con­firmed, Ses­sions would oversee about $2 bil­lion worth of crim­inal jus­tice resources, including the Drug Enforce­ment Agency.

In 2014, Con­gress passed a law bar­ring the Depart­ment of Jus­tice from using its funds to pre­vent states from imple­menting med­ical mar­i­juana laws. But this pro­vi­sion says nothing about states’ recre­ational mar­i­juana pro­vi­sions. So, in absence of con­gres­sional action or direc­tives from the pres­i­dent, the DOJ could effec­tively shut down the imple­men­ta­tion of Mass­a­chu­setts’ pot law before it even starts.

Editor’s note: Though Ques­tion 4 amended state law, mar­i­juana is still illegal under fed­eral law, and the use of mar­i­juana remains a vio­la­tion of the university’s code of stu­dent con­duct as well as the policy on a drug-free work­place.

(This article is reproduced with permission from News at Northeastern.)


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