Legalizing Recreational Marijuana: Think Before You Vote

Published: November 8, 2016

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By Mark S. Kennard, Executive Director of Project COPE
Featured in Lynn Daily Item on November 2, 2016.

Voters have a critical decision this November on whether to legalize recreational marijuana in Massachusetts.  Even those who advocate for the use of marijuana for medical purposes should carefully consider the full impact of legalizing the sale of marijuana for recreational use. While there may be benefits to legally regulating marijuana use, as a long term provider organization for prevention, intervention and treatment of substance use disorders, we hope voters will carefully examine both sides to this important decision.

In the past 20 years, starting with the passage of a compassionate use law in California, the legal marijuana business has surged in the United States. Medical marijuana is currently legal and available in half of all states while four others, Washington, Colorado, Oregon, and Alaska along with Washington, D.C., have passed laws allowing for the legal sale of recreational marijuana to adults ages 21 and up. Based on data from a cannabis research firm, legal marijuana sales will gross an estimated $5.4 billion in 2015, and sales could grow 30 percent per year through 2020.

According to the “Report of the Special Senate Committee on Marijuana” issued in March, an estimated 885,000 of Massachusetts residents used marijuana in some form over the past year for a total of 85 metric tons. This includes an estimated 400,000 youth under 25. There is clearly a market for the consumption of marijuana in our state.

Supporters of legalization advocate the ability to control the quality of the product, regulate and limit sales to those individuals over 21, and to reap additional much-needed revenues through taxation.  A national lobbying group, the “Marijuana Policy Project” wrote the Massachusetts petition. It stipulates the creation of a regulatory framework to oversee the cultivation, processing, licensing and dispensing of recreational marijuana.  And while the ballot includes regulation to prevent marketing to children, limits on signage, and a ban on public consumption, there are several unresolved issues that the proposed law does not address.

  1. Even with regulations in place, legalization may increase the availability and accessibility of marijuana for underage youth. Marijuana infused edibles are the fastest growing segment of the market and may increase the risks of harmful consequences and addiction. Approximately 1 in 4 high school students self-reported marijuana use in the past year.
  2. Research demonstrates that regular marijuana use has an adverse impact on developing brains of adolescents and young adults including reduced IQ, memory and learning functions. Higher potency marijuana may increase the risk of addiction and edibles pose an unknown level of risk of accidental ingestion by children.
  3. While less addictive than some other drugs, research shows that approximately 1 out of 9 users became dependent on marijuana and require intervention and treatment. Our state-wide treatment system is already stretched thin due to the impact of the current opioid epidemic. There are no mandates included in this ballot which provide any additional funds for treatment expansion or prevention-based activities.
  4. There is no accepted standard or mechanism to determine the level of drug induced driver impairment from marijuana intoxication and no testing equivalent to an alcohol breathalyzer. This presents a significant challenge for law enforcement personnel to identify and arrest drivers operating while drug impaired.
  5. This ballot question permits up to 12 private marijuana plants per household with no licensing or registration system (a single plant can generate up to a pound of marijuana). These home grown products have the potential to support a “black market” expansion of illicit marijuana sales to adults and youth customers across the New England region.

I ask you to be thoughtful in your response to Ballot Question 4 on November 8 as we determine what will be in the best interests of our citizens and our community.