Last November, drug policy reformers associated with Americans for Medical Rights took it on the chin when Massachusetts voters statewide rejected Question 8, which would have instituted "treatment not jail"-style reforms in the Bay State. But at the same time, and largely flying under the media radar, Massachusetts marijuana activists won sweeping symbolic victories in four state voting districts. Now they hope to see the fruits of their efforts bloom in the state legislature.
Under Massachusetts law, citizens in each state Senate or house District can petition to bring resolutions, or "questions," up for a vote. These questions take the form of non-binding referendums. In one Senate district (Middlesex 2) and two House districts (Essex 4 and Middlesex 6), the question asked voters to instruct their representatives to vote in favor of legislation reducing penalties for marijuana possession to a civil offense similar to a traffic ticket, with a maximum $100 fine. The questions won in all three districts, by 66%, 67.5%, and 62%, respectively.
In a third house district, Barnstable 4, the question asked voters to instruct their representative to vote for legislation allowing the medical use of marijuana. It passed with 61% of the vote. (See http://masscann.org/pubpolpr02.htm for complete result listings.)
The impact on legislators in those districts has been profound, although not all have been swayed by the voice of the voters. Somerville computer programmer Maddy Webster, a long-time reform activist who worked on the Middlesex districts, told DRCNet that Sen. Charles Shannon (D) heard the voters loud and clear.
"It's important that Shannon has come over to our side because he was historically opposed even to medical marijuana," Webster said, "but he was so impressed with the numbers that he has now agreed to cosponsor decrim legislation."
"We don't think he's changed his mind in terms of policy, but he represents three cities with three different demographics -- Somerville, Medford, and Winchester -- and voters in all of them approved of the question by similar margins," she added. "He has come over because that's where the votes are. And the fact that he's doing this is very important, because he's very influential."
Rep. Debby Blumer (D), the winner in the 6th Middlesex race, is another politician listening to the voters. She said before the election that she would not support marijuana decriminalization, but, she told MetroWest Daily News (Framingham), she is reconsidering.
"I don't know how to read that vote right now," Blumer said. "I will commit to looking into this and talking to people."
Blumer told the newspaper that residents she talked to in the past two weeks of campaigning supported reducing marijuana possession penalties to small fines.
Not all representatives are convinced despite the message from their constituents, but even staunch foes are having to rethink. Rep. Bradford R. Hill (R-Essex 4), told MetroWest he was baffled by the vote. "It would be awfully tough to support something like this," he said. "Smoking marijuana can lead to bigger drugs. I've seen that personally cause the death of three acquaintances since I graduated from high school," the representative asserted.
But even Hill has committed to holding meeting on the subject. "I want to be educated on the issue and the only way to be educated is to hold hearings on the issue throughout the district and find out what people really think," Hill said.
For Massachusetts activists such as Webster, what counts is getting the law changed, and she told DRCNet the election results have helped build momentum heading into the legislative session.
"We got some exciting legislation filed," said an enthused Webster, "We got a bill filed for decrim with pretty much the same language as our initiative. The lead sponsor is Rep. Patricia Jehlen (D), who sponsored a medical marijuana bill on behalf of myself and my partner, who had melanoma and who has since died. We demonstrated to her in '96 that this was a winning isue for her."
"And there are more bills," Webster said. "Rep. Shirley Gomes (R) has filed a medical marijuana bill in response to her constituents' votes in November, and we have multiple sponsors for bills providing a medical necessity defense for possession (seven representatives and two senators) and cultivation (eight representatives and two senators).
There is a snowball effect, according to Webster. "What we did was go into the state house seeking sponsors for these bills and we had the numbers that they look for. We did this in enough places to give legislators the sense that two-thirds of the voters are in favor, and once the first reps signed on, it became easier to get cosponsors."
It is one thing to get legislation introduced, getting it passed is another. Even the sympathetic Rep. Jehlen is uncertain that the numbers were overwhelming enough to get bills through the legislature.
"The legislature is in a state of flux right now," Webster told DRCNet, "committee assignments haven't been settled and the bills haven't even been assigned to committees yet. The critical thing is getting the bills out of committee, and that depends on the senate leaders. Without support from the top, it's hard to move things along," she noted.
DRCNet Advisory Board member Jon Holmes, who also sits on the board of directors of the ACLU of Massachusetts and has been involved in drug policy struggles since 1989, shares Webster's uncertainty. He told DRCNet it was too early to tell, though he noted with some pleasure that the Massachusetts political class was "stupified" by the election results.
"But," said Holmes, "on we go. We've raised a little money for a lobbyist or two, and we're aiming directly at Beacon Hill."
If reform bills fail in this legislative go-round, activists say, they will take their proposals to the ballot box statewide in 2002. National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) spokesman Allan St. Pierre vowed as much to the Worcester Telegram & Gazette in December. The Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition (MASSCANN), the statewide NORML affiliate, provided the ground-troops for the initiative effort, although, for tax reasons, MASSCANN itself did not sponsor the efforts.