On Thursday, marijuana possession and cultivation officially becomes legal for all adults 21 and older in Massachusetts, one of the four states to approve legalization on Election Day last month.
Exciting! As will be the experience for anyone trying to actually find any cannabis—which, just like before Bay State voters thought they were ending the drug war, will almost certainly require committing some kind of crime.
Massachusetts marijuana-seekers are entering what the Boston Globe calls a “gray area.” Marijuana is legal to possess, consume and grow. But it’s illegal to buy or sell—and it’s illegal for any medical-marijuana patient, the only people by whom cannabis can be legally purchased in the state, to share their stash.
The only fully legal way for a non-medical adult user to acquire any marijuana is to grow it themselves or receive it, cost-free, from someone who did.
Anyone else in possession of marijuana obtained outside of such an arrangement will have broken the law somewhere along the line in order to get it—and find someone willing to risk two years’ imprisonment and a $5,000 fine for the privilege.
Welcome to the weird zone.
This arrangement will last for at least a year, until the state’s regulated retail cannabis shops are permitted and allowed to open.
Retail shops are supposed to be up and running by January 2018, but lawmakers and state officials both have begged for more time to figure it all out—odd, considering other states have managed to hit voter-mandated deadlines to allow basic commercial transactions just fine.
The interim arrangement is “not ideal, but there’s really no other way around it,” said Jim Borghesani, one of the leaders of the legalization campaign, in comments to the Globe.
A similar situation is in effect everywhere else voters made marijuana legal on Election Day.
In each of the four states that legalized cannabis on Nov. 8, state officials and lawmakers were given a window of time to prepare for a regulated retail market—while relaxing marijuana laws immediately. This is by design, as the alternative would be to continue punishing marijuana possession and cultivation as before, even after the drug was legalized.
In addition to being able to legally hold a bag, Massachusetts law allows adults to grow up to six plants per person, with a maximum of 12 per household.
Growers, too, will have to break the law, unless they can find someone willing to give them a seed or a clone out of the goodness of their hearts, as selling seedlings or other starting material is also illegal.
Like how most teenagers manage to survive puberty, Colorado appears to have survived this awkward transition phase just fine, recording nearly $1 billion in marijuana sales last year and on track to break that record in 2016.
But like an overzealous health teacher warning you of the perils of “heavy petting,” police and prosecutors who opposed legalization are playing Chicken Little and warning of incoming chunks of sky.
A particular problem will be stamping out the miscreants and scofflaws growing more than their allotted share of plants during the state’s gap year, John Suthers, Colorado’s attorney general, told the newspaper.
“The nightmare for you is going to be the unenforceability of the limitation on 12 plants per house,’’ Suthers predicted. “And the danger is in this year’s period of time, a significant black market will arise that will be in competition with the stores when they come online.”
“People will grow it in their homes. They’ll sell it. That kind of small operation has never been a priority for law enforcement anyway.”
Massachusetts police say they aren’t still exactly sure what to do, but don’t appear to be anticipating any kind of “nightmare.”
A memo intended to help them through this awkward phase is being circulated by state public-safety officials, and cops are receiving briefings and updates on the new law—but it doesn’t appear that marijuana salespeople have much to fear from police, whose approach appears to be “aggressively chill.”
“You cannot sell,” said Boston Police Lt. Mike McCarthy, in comments to the Globe. “So if you’re violating the law and you’re caught, you may be prosecuted.”
If “we might do something about it” is the best warning police can muster, Massachusetts will survive its weird zone just fine.
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