Massachusetts was one of the few bright spots for drug reform in the November 5 elections. For the second time in a row, voters in selected cities and towns across the state voted overwhelmingly in non-binding local referenda to tell their legislators to support medical marijuana and marijuana decriminalization. With drug reformers casting around looking for a state where residents will actually vote for marijuana law reform, Massachusetts is starting to look very interesting.
"What happened in Massachusetts is a very good omen," said Bruce Mirken, director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project, a deep-pocketed group eager to win a victory after the tough loss in Nevada. "We are thinking about getting involved in Proposition S in San Francisco, but we'll also look at Massachusetts," he told DRCNet.
The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) is also interested, although it also mentioned other locales first. "We're looking at Wisconsin, Vermont, and maybe Massachusetts," said NORML's Allen St. Pierre. "We're looking for places with demonstrated public support," he told DRCNet.
That would presumably include the Bay State, where voters in 19 state representative districts encompassing 46 municipalities voted to tell their representatives to decriminalize by margins of 60% or more, with a high of 71% in Brookline and a low of 55% in Methuen. They join residents of another 18 districts who voted the same way in 2000.
The electoral clean sweep was the result of hard work by a pair of homegrown groups, the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Alliance (http://www.masscann.org) and the Drug Policy Forum of Massachusetts. While both groups expressed interest in outside help, neither is waiting for the big boys to show up.
"Now we go to the statehouse," said Scott Mortimer, an activist with the Forum. "We're very excited. People in the political establishment and the mass media are very surprised at the support we have. We will re-file the decrim and medical marijuana bills we had in the 2000-2001 session," he told DRCNet. "Massachusetts is a progressive state, and we already had support at the statehouse -- we had a dozen or so sponsors last time -- and in the wake of the call from voters, we should have even more this time."
"Now constituents and activists will have to pressure legislators to do what the voters told them to," said MassCann's Bill Downing. "We've already heard some legislators say they won't support decriminalization despite what their voters said. That means we have to turn up the heat," he told DRCNet. "We will use education and public relations, but voters need to keep the pressure on, too."
The campaign is definitely moving to a new phase, said Downing. "As we seek cosponsors for decrim and medical marijuana bills, our mission now is to focus on the legislature, especially those districts where the voters have already commanded their representatives to vote for these," he said.
"Last session, the bills were bottled up in committee," said Mortimer. "We'll be doing a lobbying campaign as we try to increase the number of sponsors this year -- and that starts now," he said. "We're looking at an early December deadline to get bills in, so we'll be down at the statehouse getting the word out in the next two weeks, then preparing for hearings in the spring."
Although Massachusetts law allows for ballot initiatives, local activists are not ready to go that route just yet. "Initiatives are an option," said Mortimer, "but we're trying to work with legislators now."
MassCann's Downing sounded a similar note. "MassCann still believes we live in a representative democracy and constituents will be able to successfully petition their legislators to do the right thing," he said. "If that doesn't work, an initiative may be next."
"We would look forward to exploring that alternative with some of the national advocacy groups," said Mortimer. "We worked with the Marijuana Policy Project in a legislative campaign two years ago, and we would look forward to working with them again, or with the Drug Policy Alliance or one or more of the other groups," he said. "Initiatives cost money, though. It comes down to funding."
But there is still a legislative battle to be fought first, and the Massachusetts activists see a real chance of success. "We're optimistic the legislature will work with us this year, given the election results," said Mortimer. "But the desperate nature of our state budget crisis also works for us. Gov. Romney has said he will not increase taxes, and we have studies showing that decriminalization will be a big savings of state resources." Still, said Mortimer, some legislators are recalcitrant. "Many of them have no real interest and limited knowledge about the issue," he said. "All they know is the drug war mythology. We have to fill them in on the wave of drug reform sweeping the Western world."