Between the Lines: Repeal or Legalize?

Most evenings in the summer, I spend the last half hour or so before dark in my vegetable garden. I wouldn’t call what I do work, exactly, but by my getting out there for a little while every night, stuff gets done. Weeds get pulled, plants get watered and fed. Cucumbers and tomatoes get staked, carrots and beets get thinned. In the hot weather, I perspire, but again, I don’t think of my activity as labor. It’s more meditation. I just let my mind wander—in most cases, it wanders no further than the four corners of my garden plot. There’s really no beginning, no end. Whatever I don’t finish today, I’ll get to tomorrow. Or the next day. Or not at all.

Over the years, I’ve become pretty good at not allowing the other parts of my life to invade my garden reverie. If I have an unpleasant exchange with my teenager or receive a disconcerting letter from my health insurance provider, I try not to let it spoil the fun of crushing potato beetles or spreading manure. Every once in a while, however, I find my mind wandering too close to a part of my life that I find less enjoyable than gardening.

So it was on a particularly hot and steamy evening last week as I stood amid my 400 garlic plants, snipping scapes. In between my rows of garlic, a bumper crop of self-seeded dill was taking over. Every so often, I’d brush against the dill, which responded with a burst of fragrance, mixing with the smell of garlic. That smell got me thinking about hops, then about cannabis. And that’s when my mind wandered out of my garden and smack into the far less appealing world of politics.

As I held my bouquet of garlic scapes and enjoyed the final blush of daylight, I began to think about why I can’t grow some marijuana in my own garden. I thought about how dandy it would be to be able to regard cannabis the same way I regard all the plants I can grow in my garden—legally. Beyond the pleasure of raising and eventually harvesting the crop, I would surely use some and put some away for future use, just like I dry garlic or pickle cucumbers. As the world is today, I don’t imagine I’d have trouble giving away any excess crop—not like zucchini!—but in a world where gardeners enjoyed unfettered freedom to grow cannabis, you never know.

Not long ago, the idea that I might ever be able to grow marijuana in my backyard seemed pretty unlikely. Though marijuana has been widely available in the United States for more than 40 years and a lot of people use it, the plant remained for most of those years an easy target for political demagoguery. The resulting laws against the cultivation, distribution and possession of cannabis were applied, often severely, with the tacit approval of the electorate. As someone who grew up in the Age of Marijuana, when American society seemed effectively divided between the “high” world and the “straight” world—you didn’t have to smoke pot to be part of the high world, and being straight didn’t mean being clean—I was filled with outrage at the social injustice inherent in the prohibition against marijuana. It seemed obvious to me and to most of my friends that the fight against marijuana—the use of the word itself a vestige of the government-aided propaganda war against cannabis, or hemp—was wrong-headed, hypocritical and doomed to failure. And yet the prohibition and the politics that supported it seemed intractable.

If you’d asked me even as recently as 10 years ago if Massachusetts today might be ready to legalize marijuana, I’d have laughed. But here we are: Massachusetts will be one of more than a half dozen states around the nation, including Maine, California, Nevada, Arizona and Montana, with initiatives to legalize marijuana on the 2016 ballot.

Given the recent experience in Colorado, where voters passed a legalization initiative in 2012, as well as the Bay State’s own recent history—a 2008 referendum to decriminalize marijuana passed by a 30-point margin; in 2012, voters by a 27-point margin passed Question 3, legalizing medical marijuana—there’s every reason to believe that the legalization effort here can be successful.

You might think the prospect of imminent legalization fills me with unbridled joy and unqualified optimism. Not really. In part because of delays and other problems with the implementation of Question 3 by the state Department of Public Health, it remains to be seen whether the state can fairly regulate the distribution of cannabis even for medical reasons. At the federal level, meanwhile, the Drug Enforcement Agency has been far from circumspect in flashing its badge at physicians here who’ve joined the medical marijuana industry, demanding that doctors who’ve taken positions in dispensaries relinquish their licenses to prescribe narcotics.

While some growing pains probably are to be expected as we try to move away from nearly a century-long prohibition of pot, there remain some unresolved issues within the reform movement itself that threaten not only the successful passage of the 2016 ballot initiative in Massachusetts, but the shape and scope of marijuana regulation well into the future.

Last month, when Rob Kampia, the executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, opened a ballot referendum committee with the state’s Office of Campaign and Political Finance, not all reform activists in Massachusetts were overjoyed. Though Kampia and his Washington D.C.-based MPP funded and organized the winning legalization effort in Colorado, members of locally based reform groups such as Bay State Repeal, which has been working on an initiative of its own for about a year, say Massachusetts “can do better.”

Terry Franklin, the driving force behind the annual Extravaganja festival in Amherst and a veteran reform activist, expressed great concern that MPP was already ramping up for a 2016 ballot initiative without talking with the locals.

“It’s not a matter of being upset at [MMP for] ‘encroaching on our turf,’” Franklin told me. “I personally don’t care who gets the credit for things. It’s a matter of ending up with a good law rather than a bad one.”

A member of Bay State Repeal, Franklin said the “fact that MPP would come into the state and set up a competing campaign committee without any attempt at cooperation, or even any communication, makes one wonder what they are up to.” He said he fears MPP is “under the control of large business interests and wants to write the law to favor the oligarchs versus the little guy.” Franklin said he was wary of regulations that limit home growing and steer consumers toward commercial retailers.

While he said he believes “a clone” of Colorado’s legalization initiative “would certainly be passable in Massachusetts, we want to do even better.” Franklin said that, based on MPP’s recent initiative filing in Nevada, “specifically the part about keeping home grow illegal if someone lives within 25 miles of a store [licensed to sell pot],” it “looks like things are backsliding rather than progressing.”

MMP’s New England political director Matt Simon said it’s still early days for his organization. “We really haven’t done anything yet,” he told me by phone from his office in Goffstown, N. H. “But we’re absolutely interested and oriented to getting local input from activists on the ground in Massachusetts.” Simon said that MMP is “very proud” of its efforts in Colorado and believes it can serve as a model for other states, balancing the desire for individual freedom with the need for responsible regulation that addresses concerns of “other stakeholders.”In Colorado, he said, the new law allows individuals to grow up to six plants, with certain restrictions—you can only grow within an enclosed and locked facility, for example. The limits on home growers, he said, addressed concerns about children having access to marijuana without being overly restrictive.

While many activists have told me they hope that the reform movement will eventually unite behind a single, well-conceived initiative, there are philosophical sticking points that go far beyond questions of turf. In broad strokes, MPP has favored a move to legalize, regulate and tax marijuana. MPP calls its initiative committee here the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Massachusetts. Meanwhile, members of Bay State Repeal would prefer simply to repeal the prohibition—no need for replacement laws that restrict individual freedoms, create the possibility for the corruption of the regulatory process or favor certain political or business interests.

With successful initiatives in Colorado and the State of Washington, legalization advocates seem to have momentum that repeal advocates haven’t yet enjoyed. As encouraged as I am by the growing acceptance of reform initiatives, legalization designed only to accommodate commercial interests and raise tax revenues won’t seem like a victory to me.•

Author: Tom Vannah

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