New Year's Day marked the first anniversary of marijuana decriminalization in the Commonwealth. The statistics aren't in yet, and when they emerge different spins will be put on the impact of the new law. However, a glance out the window assures us that the sky hasn't fallen, despite the warnings of the 2008 initiative's shrillest critics, mostly self-serving career "public servants."
To their great credit, 65 percent of our fellow citizens saw through the old bromides and found the courage to declare that we gain nothing by wrecking people's lives for small amounts of pot, and we can't afford to waste scarce law enforcement resources that ought to be focused on real, predatory, crime.
But that was last year. What's next?
Nationally, all eyes are on California, where an initiative is headed to the November 2010 ballot that would allow localities to control, tax and regulate marijuana cultivation, distribution and sales. Organizers have collected well over the required signatures, assuring them of a place on the ballot. The most recent Field poll puts voter support at 56 percent.
If the initiative passes, it will not legalize marijuana; rather, it will merely repeal the state prohibition laws, leaving marijuana illegal under federal law. Thus California voters will have deftly ceded sole responsibility and burden of suppressing marijuana to federal authorities.
A splendid kerfuffle will erupt. Prohibitionists will howl about a federal-state "conflict," and maybe even a "constitutional crisis,' but it will be no such thing. There's very solid historical and legal precedent for this state of affairs.
In 1923, three years after alcohol prohibition went into effect under both federal law and the law of most states, New York repealed its prohibition laws, and for the remaining 10 years of Prohibition, only the "feds" pounded on speakeasy doors. Notably, New York City escaped much of the prohibition-related crime and violence that plagued other large cities, like Chicago and Detroit.
Bills to legalize, regulate and tax the cannabis industry at the statewide level have been introduced in California, Washington and New Hampshire (and Massachusetts, if you include a petition from one of the authors). A special commission of the Rhode Island Senate is now studying the efficacy of marijuana prohibition and the options for significant reform. Expect a bill to be introduced there too.
As three-quarters of the states now face a serious fiscal crisis, and the search for new taxes and economic opportunities intensifies, turning our collective back on the revenue prospect of a taxed, regulated cannabis market, and the jobs that it and a liberated hemp industry would produce, seems imprudent and irresponsible.
Marijuana prohibition, in short, is a luxury taxpayers can no longer afford.
In Massachusetts, there is no expectation that the legislature will join the mix, as marijuana law reform has long been perceived as the third rail of politics: touch it and you're dead. Why that perception endures after fully 65 percent of voters declared their support for decriminalization, representing 349 cities and towns out of 351, is baffling.
When politicians shrink from an issue, citizens must lead, as they proudly did in the abolition of slavery, ending the Vietnam war, and, in Massachusetts, with marijuana in 2008. By passing the initiative, voters not only protected families from unnecessary entanglement in the criminal justice system, and stopped wasting law enforcement resources, but legitimized debate on this subject.
No living person is responsible for inventing marijuana prohibition. It was conceived almost 100 years ago in a cultural and racial climate very different from our own, and very different from that to which we aspire. Prohibition's collapse is unstoppable. Preparing to replace it will be the test of leadership in the new decade.
By Richard Evans and Steven Epstein
January 7, 2010