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Marijuana Questions on Some Massachusetts Ballots [FEATURE]

Voters in 73 Massachusetts cities and towns will be voting on a number of Public Policy Questions (PPQs) related to medical marijuana and marijuana legalization this November. Those towns and cities make up 18 state representative districts and account for about 12% of the state population.

Under Massachusetts law, citizens can petition to put PPQs on the ballot. The non-binding votes are a signal to legislators of voter sentiment on a given issue in the district.

2008 "Freedom Rally," Boston Common (via
The organizers of this year's PPQ campaign are the Drug Policy Forum of Massachusetts (DPFMA), the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition (MassCann/NORML), Suffolk University NORML, the UMass Amherst Cannabis Reform Coalition, and War on Lies, an on-again, off-again walk across America for marijuana freedom.

This year's PPQs are just the latest in a decade long effort to turn the marijuana policy tide in Massachusetts. Beginning in 2000, activists began using PPQs. Since then, they have passed 41 and lost none on medical marijuana, decriminalization, hemp, and most recently, legalization or tax and regulate. The PPQs passed with an average of 64.5% of the vote. Those PPQs laid the groundwork for the successful 2008 marijuana decriminalization initiative, and now, organizers hope to use them to push forward on legalization and medical marijuana.

"This is a continuation of that process," said DPFMA's John Leonard.

"We have a bunch of PPQs this year," said Bill Downing of MassCann/NORML. "There are a set of medical marijuana ones and a set of legalization ones. We're using the medical ones strategically to target individuals who have sway, and for the legalization ones, we used the results of the 2008 decriminalization vote to target communities with high decrim vote levels."

In nine districts, voters will be asked if state representatives from that district should be instructed to vote in favor of legalization. The wording of the PPQs varies slightly, with one asking if marijuana should be regulated "in the same manner as alcohol," and another mentioning "the taxation, cultivation, and sale of marijuana to adults."

In the other nine districts, voters will be asked to urge state representatives to vote in favor of medical marijuana legislation. Again, there is slight variation, with some PPQs asking about a doctor's recommendation and others specifying a recommendation "from a doctor or other caregiver."

"For medical marijuana, we looked at the real enemies of marijuana reform and targeted those districts," said Leonard. "We can go into a district and win by 60% or 70%, and if it doesn't change the legislator's mind, it will at least silence him. It has the effect of quieting down a lot of opposition."

history's dustbin: anti-Prop 2 (marijuana decrim) press conference, 2008 (Prop 2 passed)
Sometimes, the PPQs can turn former foes into allies, Leonard said. "We did it to Sen. Shannon, our PPQ got 67% of the vote, and he changed his position on marijuana 180 degrees. He became a convert and sponsored our decriminalization bill," he elaborated. "That same year, we did medical marijuana in the district of a Republican member of the health committee, and she became a sponsor of our medical bill."

PPQs can also win over another potential ally, said Leonard. "PPQs are the grunt work to prepare for an initiative, and they let people know there is a lot of support out there. They tend to bring newspaper editorial boards over to our side, and if an initiative does come, those editorials are important," he said.

In addition to putting politicians on notice, the PPQs serve other purposes, Downing said. "They provide the local press with evidence there is support for reform, as well as local supporters who might be interested in giving us financial support. Likewise, if there are people with money who want in invest in a state where it was pretty darned sure, we want to make it easy for them in Massachusetts."

"It's also a signal to national funders that these are winnable," Leonard pointed out. "The decriminalization initiative would not have happened without the PPQs. There are always polls, but these are actual votes, and people pay attention to that."

"It cost us nothing to run PPQs," said MASSCANN's Downing. "It's an all-volunteer effort so far, but we do have a budget for a legalization campaign that has been very carefully worked on. We're trying to start raising money for that, and I expect we will have made some from this year's Freedom Rally."

Although MASSCANN and DPFMA have a history of working together on the PPQs, there is space between them on the issue of legalization. While MASSCANN is rearing to go, DPFMA doesn't think the state is ready.

"Some people in MASSCANN think we should just go ahead on legalization, but at DPFMA, I think we feel legalization isn't that close," said Leonard. "We might score high with tax and regulate in some of these communities, but it's new, and once people throw all the scare tactics at it, support could drop a bit. I don't want a tax and regulate initiative without doing further work, doing more polling, having a large advertising budget. You should proceed cautiously," he cautioned.

"We've really done our homework with medical marijuana and decriminalization, but we're just putting our toes in the water with tax and regulate. What we do see that we're totally ripe for is a medical marijuana initiative. A strongly worded initiative without emasculated language like in Arizona could be put on the ballot and win easily," Leonard said.

This year's medical marijuana PPQs are part of that strategy, Leonard said. "We're bringing two of them within Scott Brown's old state senate seat, and a couple more where legislators have been strongly against marijuana reform. We're doing it in the worst districts we could do it in, and we're confident we will win."

DPFMA is pursuing the opposite strategy with its tax and regulate PPQs. "We're doing the most liberal districts and I think we'll do respectably in every district we target," Leonard said. "We are hoping with wins in these districts to make it legitimate for officials and candidates to talk about tax and regulate and not get tarred and feathered."

To the extent that PPQs or some other form of non-binding resolution local initiative exists in other states and localities, activists should take advantage of it, said Leonard. "This is a way for local people to do something, and you don't have to have a lot of money. I hope we inspire people all across the country to use this tactic. It's really politically effective."

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