Massachusetts voters elected to legalize the recreational use of marijuana in 2016, which was absolutely the right decision. Many, like Governor Charlie Baker and Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, WCAS ’09, claim that marijuana is unsafe and toxic for our communities. But the truth of the matter is that marijuana is already prevalent in our communities for better or worse. Legalization will make the substance safer for people who choose to use it and will take profits away from drug dealers and cartels, giving it to legal business owners and the state (through taxes). Furthermore, users will better understand the substance because the government can require packaging that specifies concentrations and provides instructions on how to use marijuana properly. The black market does not provide such safeguards.
Unfortunately, Massachusetts marijuana laws are not nearly as good as they ought to be. It seems to me that the law that was passed was less of a “final cut,” and more like a template for what could potentially be excellent legislation.
To begin, marijuana taxes could be much higher. Marijuana will be taxed in two ways: by excise tax and by sales tax. In Massachusetts, the excise tax rate will be between 3.75 percent and 5.75 percent depending on the town or city, and the sales tax will be the same as the general sales tax of 6.25 percent. For comparison, Colorado’s excise tax on marijuana is 15 percent and its sales tax on marijuana is 12.9 percent.
Colorado can get away with such high taxes because marijuana is coming off of the black market, where the prices were inflated. Colorado took in $127 million this past year from marijuana taxes. That is a huge sum that can be put to really good use. Each year, the state appropriates marijuana funds for building schools, funding drug prevention programs and anti-bullying campaigns, and early literacy grants, and so on.
Unfortunately, this is another place where the Massachusetts marijuana law is insufficient. Our law does not specify any programs to be funded by marijuana taxes besides the enforcement of the law itself. Any funds after that are just dumped into a general fund for appropriation by the legislature.
My fear is that those funds could be wasted by future state legislatures on irrelevant or useless expenses, when they should rightfully be going toward marijuana research, prevention programs, and drug rehab. I worry that future legislatures could take the marijuana funds for granted and use them for political gain or frivolous expenses, while important programs related to marijuana expenses go unfunded. The revenue the state gains from marijuana sales should be automatically appropriated to certain programs that are relevant and effective.
A marijuana research initiative is one such idea that is currently under consideration. Senator Jason Lewis, a strong opponent of the 2016 legalization campaign, has proposed a bill that would allow the Commonwealth to use taxpayer funds to study the social, psychological, and biological effects of marijuana. While funding for this program would not come directly from marijuana taxes (as it should), we can at least say that we are publicly funding research. Marijuana research is very sparse in the United States because of federal regulations and lack of funding. Massachusetts could become a leader in this field.
Another very important part of creating an effective marijuana law is packaging regulations, of which the current law specifies none. Packaging is extremely important for marijuana products, especially edibles. Marijuana is not like cigarettes or alcohol when it comes to ease of recognition. You can clearly distinguish a cigarette from a piece of food, and alcohol has a very distinct taste from any other type of drink. But for marijuana, this is not always the case. In states where it is legal, stores sell marijuana-infused cookies and brownies, as well as other products containing THC such as weed candy and sodas. There is even an ice cream bar infused with marijuana called Krondike.
If not packaged properly, marijuana edibles could be a big hazard for children and uninformed adults. Massachusetts needs to require big, explicit labels, child-proof packaging for edibles, and other safety measures so that we don’t have to deal with our dogs and children getting high from stealing out of the cookie jar.
Lewis has filed legislation to solve this issue. His bill would require opaque packaging, childproofing, and other very strict regulations that provide for public safety.
Finally, the legalization bill also lacks adequate educational requirements and initiatives. As written, the law requires that a person under 21 caught with marijuana fulfill four hours of instructional courses on drug education and 10 hours of community service. That is nothing. A driver’s ed course in Massachusetts requires at least a total of 48 hours of instruction and behind-the-wheel experience.
Moreover, the educational component ought not to be limited to people caught using marijuana underaged. It should be a graduation requirement to take some sort of drug educational course for a semester in high school. It is the duty of our educational system to prepare our citizenry to live a healthy and productive life. Children need to learn how to make responsible decisions about drugs and alcohol, and this is an important component to a robust marijuana law.
Marijuana ought to be legal, but that is not to say that it is good to use marijuana. Legalization is the first step to minimizing the impact of such a drug. When weed is legal, it can be controlled, regulated, taxed, and researched, all things which increase public health and safety, rather than having the drug cause havoc on the black market.
Alcohol prohibition in the U.S. is a great example of how substance illegality can cause negative public health effects. The History Channel claims that during prohibition, “Thousands died from drinking tainted liquor.” Proper regulation can do an awful lot to increase the safety of controlled substances.
Massachusetts voters made the right decision when they voted to legalize marijuana, but now the state legislature has a huge job to do when it comes to making the law the best that it can be. The goal needs to be to preserve individual liberty to use marijuana, while also making it safe and ensuring public health. The law, as written, is pretty bad. But, as it turns out, some of the critics of legalization like Lewis and Baker could be the most helpful allies in creating a comprehensive and intelligent legalization policy.
Featured Image by Meg Dolan / Heights Editor