Bill Newman: Last day nears in the war on at least one drug

Last modified: Friday, December 06, 2013

NORTHAMPTON — “Marijuana legalized in Massachusetts.” Expect that headline on Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016.

For years, public opinion polls across the United States have demonstrated widespread support to end marijuana prohibition. Unfortunately, politicians still paranoid of the moniker “soft on crime” or “soft on drugs” have waffled on this issue and waited for the people to lead.

And the people have. In 2008, Massachusetts citizens voted by a 65-35 margin to decriminalize possession of a small amount for personal use, replacing a criminal sanction with a rarely enforced $100 civil penalty. Four years later, in 2012, Massachusetts joined 18 other states when voters approved medical marijuana by a similar landslide margin, 63-37.

Something else important happened in the fight for sane marijuana policies in 2012. Colorado and Washington state flat-out legalized marijuana for personal use, creating a system of regulation and taxation. Some months later, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the federal Department of Justice would not bust producers, sellers and consumers of marijuana who conformed to their state’s marijuana laws — notwithstanding that cannabis remains illegal under federal statutes.

On Nov. 8, 2016, in Massachusetts, as well as in a number of other states, expect to see the question of legalization on the ballot.

The day after the election newspapers undoubtedly will quote some police official or the president of the Massachusetts Family Institute as “vehemently opposing” legalization and predicting “dire results.” Fortunately, the story also will include the view of law enforcement officials who believe that the marijuana prohibition has been ineffective, unnecessary and unfair — a gargantuan waste of time and money that detracts from police doing what they are supposed to do — fight actual crime.

LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition) will praise the vote as making Massachusetts safer by eliminating gangs and guns and laced pot — not to mention the stigma of arrest — from the calculus of marijuana use. The newspaper will go on to note that sale of marijuana will be restricted to adults; that legalization, studies show, does not increase use of marijuana by young people; and that criminal sanctions will remain in place for unauthorized sale or distribution and for driving under the influence.

The story undoubtedly will credit Bay State Repeal with having put different versions of the ballot initiative on the 2014 ballot as non-binding public policy questions, and using those results to craft the precise language for the 2016 ballot proposal. The newspaper will also note that Bay State Repeal secured the necessary number of signatures for the initiative to appear on the 2016 ballot and then helped organize the successful grassroots campaign.

Between now and November 2016, one of the biggest fights — curiously — may occur between two groups that both favor legalization. One group, composed primarily of licensed medical marijuana growers (who likely will be grandfathered as the licensed marijuana suppliers) may oppose a person’s right to grow a couple plants at home for his or her own use. After all, we’re talking lost market share and missed tax revenue. But the more rational position is that if people can cultivate their own tomatoes and grapes and make homebrew, they should be allowed to grow marijuana for their own use as well. Can we agree that home gardeners and commercial tomato growers co-exist quite nicely and that we don’t need local law enforcement surveillance drones peering through our bedroom windows allegedly to determine if someone is growing a pot plant?

The Daily Hampshire Gazette reporter who will attend the legalization victory party will quote one supporter as saying, “People will look back at marijuana prohibition and wonder how could it have taken us over 80 years from repeal of the alcohol prohibition to get to the repeal of marijuana prohibition.” Another supporter standing nearby will interject, “Because marijuana was viewed as a drug that blacks used, and criminal drug laws allowed the United States to imprison people of color and, of course, some white people were caught up in that dragnet as well.”

That explanation is unassailable. Campaign slogans from the late 1960s and early 1970s about a war on crime and drugs have transmogrified into a horrible, senseless and expensive experiment in mass incarceration. As Attorney General Holder has pointed out, the United States, with only 5 percent of the world’s population, now incarcerates almost 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.

The final paragraph of this newspaper’s story may include a human-interest note — about a 60-something civil liberties lawyer at that victory party sitting alone, nursing a beer, looking pensive. When asked “Why the long face?” the attorney will muse, “I can’t help thinking about the millions and millions, the tens of millions, of people and families whose lives have been destroyed by these stupid drug laws.”

When pressed to admit that the vote made him happy, his face brightened and he said, “You bet. I’ve lived through many decades when I never dreamed I’d live to see this day.”

Bill Newman is a Northampton lawyer and host of a WHMP weekday program. His column appears the first Saturday of the month. He can be reached at


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