Pot Matters: Massachusetts Officials Cop-Out

Leading state officials in Massachusetts oppose the ballot measure to legalize marijuana that will go before the state’s voters this November.

Charlie Baker is the governor of Massachusetts, Maura Healey is the state attorney general and Martin J. Walsh is the mayor of Boston. These officials published an opinion piece in the Boston Globe in early March urging citizens to vote “no” on the November ballot initiative.

Their argument is worth close inspection, because it just doesn’t hold up—not so much politically, because the voters will determine that at the ballot box—but in terms of public policy because it is fraught with contradictions.

The governor and his colleagues first point out that the state has already decriminalized marijuana and made the drug available for medical use.

Their argument against making marijuana “fully legal and widely available for commercial sale” is straightforward. It rests on their own interpretations of the results of legalization in Colorado. More young people use marijuana when it is legal. Marijuana use by adolescents is not safe. Increased marijuana use produces public health problems such as increases in emergency room visits and increases in traffic fatalities. Edible marijuana products pose risks for both adults and children.

The potential revenue raised from marijuana taxes will be offset by increased costs for “our first responders, our medical system, and our cities and towns… [and] any new revenue would be vastly insufficient to cover the cost of ambulance rides, emergency room visits, and treatment. And these are just the hard costs; they don’t include the suffering of the injured and their families.”

Governor Baker and his colleagues also argue that “the financial backers of legalization are not neighborhood leaders, medical professionals, or grass-root activists” but instead “big businesses and investors” who are “motivated by the profit potential for dominating a new marketplace.” 

Furthermore, and this is probably the most important claim here, “decades of research have not debunked the myth that marijuana is harmless.” 

Finally, these opponents of legalization argue that the state has a big problem with the “heroin and prescription-drug epidemic” that has strained the resources of “emergency departments and drug treatment centers . . . and our first responders are stretched to their limits.” Their conclusion is that “we should not be expanding access to a drug that will further drain our health and safety resources.”

The obvious weakness in this argument is its reliance on a self-serving appraisal of the impact of legalization in Colorado and rather dubious assumptions about the reconciliation of potential revenue and prospective public health costs. Note that no hard data is provided about actual costs and benefits, either in Colorado nor Massachusetts. This is an argument without a premise or a factual foundation. Journalists, advocates and citizens can fact-check these claims, and they will.

The most interesting aspect of the governor’s argument is its inherent flaw, its own contradictory logic, and this is what makes it such a cop-out. 

It looks like an exercise in protecting the public interest, while it is actually an example of dereliction of duty on the part of these prominent public officials. What’s on display here is a series of excuses to avoid taking action clearly required out of their responsibility to the citizens of Massachusetts. Because if one believes in the various points offered above—and one can reasonably expect that these officials truly believe in what they say—then they should acknowledge that these points make a clear and obvious case in favor of marijuana’s legalization.

The ‘marijuana, assassin of youth’ argument has been around for nearly a century. 

Advocates of legalization do not rest their case on the argument that marijuana is harmless, but instead on the argument that legalization produces less harm than prohibition. That said, the ‘assassin of youth’ argument had been largely debunked with reliable and valid research over the last generation. Teenagers should not use marijuana, for a variety of reasons, but their use of marijuana is deemed by many experts as an insufficient justification for marijuana’s criminalization.

Nonetheless, take a close look at the argument being made by the governor, the attorney general, and the mayor of Boston. 

Marijuana is harmful for teenagers, so that’s why they prefer to let teenagers buy it from an unregulated illegal market rather than reduce teenage access by way of a legal, regulated market with an age limit restricting the drug’s purchase to adults. In other words, a legal marijuana market is more harmful to teens than the current illegal market. It’s better to let kids have unrestricted access to marijuana and other drugs than to legalize marijuana for adults, better to contract with a criminal market to address the issue of marijuana’s availability to teenagers than to take responsibility to address the problem with public sector engagement and oversight.

What a cop-out!

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