Voters Set to Ponder Legalized Pot in Massachusetts

Possessing small amounts of marijuana has already been decriminalized, but could legalization be next?

The idea might not be so far out, man.

Voters in Falmouth precincts 1, 2, 5 and 6, as well as on Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, will weigh in on a nonbinding ballot question in November regarding legislation that would allow the state to regulate and tax marijuana in the same fashion as alcohol, said attorney Steven Epstein, a founder of the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition.

“Anybody who has a rational mind will see it’s just wrong not to make money on it,” Epstein said. “Put it in stores and regulate it.”

The ballot question is based on House of Representatives Bill 2929, which is “an act to regulate and tax the cannabis industry” and is modeled after the state Alcohol Beverage Control Act. The question is only being considered in communities where supporters gathered at least 200 signatures to place the nonbinding measure on the ballot.

The bill would make marijuana legal for people 21 and older, allowing consumers to grow and share their own marijuana just as people who brew their own beer, Epstein said. But the state would become the dealer.

The Bill 2929 seeks to create a Cannabis Control Authority, similar to the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission, which would oversee the issuance of licenses to cultivate, process, trade and import marijuana.

Epstein said the bill calls for establishing license fees and excise taxes on cannabis sold at retail, adding it would create new jobs.

The state already imposes excise taxes on cigarettes and alcohol. In fiscal year 2009, the state Department of Revenue collected $587 million in cigarette taxes and $72 million from the alcohol excise tax. If the marijuana bill is approved, Epstein said marijuana sales could bring in as much as $600 million in new revenue to state coffers each year, which is on par with casino gambling revenue projections.

But at least one local law enforcement official said Epstein is simply blowing smoke because the financial benefits are outweighed by the negative impacts on the community.

“Pot is not alcohol. It’s not even close. Not even in the same league,” Falmouth Police Chief Anthony Riello said. “You don’t necessarily get drunk when you drink alcohol if you just have a little, but you smoke pot for one reason: to get high.”

Riello vehemently opposed the marijuana decriminalization ballot question two years ago that made possession of 1 ounce or less of marijuana a civil infraction punishable by a $100 fine.

He said the decriminalization measure was simply a way for pro-pot groups such as the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws to get their foot in the door as they move toward completely legalizing marijuana.

Riello said marijuana is “definitely a gateway drug.”

“Marijuana opens the door, and it’s illegal for a reason,” he said. “I’ve never met anyone who said he started with heroin or crack.”

While Epstein said that anything taken in excess is bad for one’s health, he said marijuana is no more dangerous than eating fatty foods, drinking soda or drinking alcohol on a regular basis. He said opposition to legalization from police officials is “all about protecting their power.”

But state Rep. Matt Patrick, D-Falmouth, said he sees too many problems with addiction to add another substance, legally controlled or not. “At this stage of the game, I can’t support it,” he said. “I would have to see a lot more work on that before I even come close.”

– Article from the Cape Cod Times on September 25, 2010.

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