By Andy Metzger
State House News Service
BOSTON -- Having won decriminalization and the legalization of marijuana for medical use through the use of the ballot, activists are now planning to put a full legalization referendum before Massachusetts voters during the next presidential election, in 2016.
"We won't have to have it on the ballot again after we've finally repealed the prohibition," said William Downing, who has been involved in marijuana activism since 1989 and is the treasurer of a newly registered ballot committee called Bay State Repeal.
Last November, as Massachusetts approved medical marijuana, voters in Washington and Colorado fully legalized and regulated the drug. Both opponents and proponents said they will be watching how the new policy fares in those states to make their case to voters in 2016.
Downing said Massachusetts was the first state in the nation to restrict marijuana, prohibiting doctors from prescribing it in 1913, well before it was outlawed federally in 1937. Downing also sees parallels between the legal marijuana movement and the people who successfully repealed alcohol prohibition, which unlike marijuana, was enshrined in a constitutional amendment.
"They were referred to back then as the wets. The drys and the wets. And the wets did almost exactly what we're doing right here right now," said Downing.
Bay State Repeal plans to put non-binding public policy questions about whether to legalize marijuana before voters in 2014, before making a push for binding language -- which would be reviewed by the Legislature first -- on the 2016 ballot as an initiative petition.
"A lot more people vote generally when there's a presidential election and we do better when a lot more people vote because this is a populist issue," said Downing, whose advocacy began by calling for the use of hemp, a fibrous plant used in textiles and paper, which is nearly identical to marijuana.
"I think that we can make a clear case on the effects of marijuana that have been proven," Massachusetts Family Institute President Kris Mineau told the News Service. He said, "We will vehemently oppose any such effort" to legalize marijuana.
The Family Institute has been on the losing side of recent marijuana ballot questions, dating back to 2008 when voters decriminalized possession of less than an ounce of the drug.
Mineau, who described the legalization proposal as "a slippery slope of a gateway drug," said the opposition would hope to "muster a more effective campaign."
"Is crack cocaine going to be next on the legislation list?" Mineau asked.
Asked if he thought any other drugs should be legal, Downing said, "I don't really know much about other drugs... Those aren't our issue."
Downing said the illegality of marijuana does not prevent people from smoking it, fosters distrust of the police, allows for an unregulated system of drug dealers and "weakens the moral impact of the term, illegal."
A Melrose resident, Downing said the Department of Public Healths regulations around the medical use of marijuana are "absolutely ridiculous and based on 'Reefer Madness' logic," while Mineau said the state has taken a strange turn over the past few years.
"We're rational people. Is this really what we want for our commonwealth?" asked Mineau, describing the past decade as a "horrific slope" and referencing "sexuality" and "gambling" in addition to marijuana. He said, "What are we? Are we Copenhagen all of a sudden? I hope not."
Bay State Repeal said in a Thursday announcement they would seek to create the "simplest and least restrictive plan for marijuana law reform focused on preventing non-medical distribution to children."
For marijuana users, legalization would make the drug cheaper, but would not make it more available, said Downing, who argued, "Anybody who wants to get marijuana can get it now."
Full marijuana legalization has grown nearer to the mainstream in recent years. Two of the five elected officials seeking a congressional seat in the Boston suburbs earlier this year said they would support treating marijuana like alcohol.
Downing said it was "exhilarating" to look toward potential legalization.
"I've been a marijuana user since I was 15," said Downing, when asked how long he has used marijuana. He also said, "It's nobody's damn business how long I've been smoking pot," and said strictures on use of the drug saps the freedom from society.
"We are America, and this is the land of the free, and we need to make sure that we remain free from intrusive government," Downing said.