Boston Freedom Rally: A Marijuana Hat Trick in Massachusetts


Massachusetts passed marijuana decriminalization in 2008. Massachusetts passed medical marijuana in 2012. In the 2016 presidential election, Massachusetts will earn the marijuana reform hat trick by passing marijuana legalization.

But which one – the good legalization or the better legalization?

I just attended the 2015 Boston Freedom Rally, the 26th annual protest for marijuana legalization in the Bay State. This year, there are two groups attempting to place legalization on the 2016 ballot – Bay State Repeal and the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol.

Bay State Repeal (BSR, or “Bee Ess Ah” as the locals pronounce it) proposes the most liberal marijuana legalization yet proposed. Home cultivation and personal possession would be allowed with virtually no limits. A commercial marijuana system would be created with minimal taxation. Best of all, the rights of cannabis consumers in the workplace, in family court, and in medical decisions involving organ transplants would be protected. Bay State Repeal is backed by MassCann/NORML and was heavily promoted throughout the Freedom Rally.

The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol (CRMLA or “Crim-Lah”) proposes a fairly standard marijuana legalization similar to what has already passed in four states. Personal possession would be capped at one ounce, home possession at ten ounces with up to twelve cultivated cannabis plants per household. A commercial system would be created with additional taxes added on to standard Massachusetts sales tax. Cannabis consumers’ family and medical rights are protected, but employers would still be able to fire people for failing metabolite drug tests. CRMLA is backed by the Marijuana Policy Project.

A similar dichotomy – good legalization or better legalization – exists in Maine, Michigan, Arizona, and especially California. The division usually involves long-time local activists pushing for the better legalization while professional national activists push for the good legalization. Attempts are made in each state to get all marijuana reformers behind one single initiative and these attempts almost always fail for lack of understanding of two simple facts:

Marijuana legalization campaigns cost serious money.

Eighty-six percent of the voters don’t smoke pot.

As much as I would like to see Massachusetts’ Bay State Repeal to make the ballot and pass, as much as I’d like to see the hard work of my friends in Boston come to fruition, without the serious money needed to gather signatures, I question whether the campaign can achieve its goals.

Then, if they are successful at making the ballot, will eighty-six percent of Bay State voters approve of legalization that means their next-door neighbor could plant as many cannabis plants as will fit on their property? Will 2016 political attack ads make hay of the idea that Massachusetts would become New England’s de facto black market marijuana capital, since illegal growers could claim their massive farms are for personal use and their couriers could possess any amount on their person without interference?

It would be so easy for an anti-BSR campaign to point out that the recent Supreme Judicial Court decisions already protect personal users from police interference – the smell and sight and possession of marijuana are no longer probable cause for police to investigate. Why should Massachusetts endorse such a reckless legalization plan, the detractors will ask.

That’s if BSR makes the ballot and CRMLA fails. If both make the ballot, then CRMLA becomes the “Goldilocks option” for nervous voters in that eighty-six percent – Prohibition is too hard, BSR is too soft, but CRMLA is just right.

If CRMLA makes the ballot, whether or not BSR does, I believe CRMLA passes. If BSR makes the ballot and CRMLA fails to, BSR might pass. Most cannabis consumers will vote for either, a liberal voter would likely vote for either, a conservative voter may reject both. If there are any voters on the fence about the issue, they’re going to choose the more conservative option on the ballot, whether that’s CRMLA or maintaining prohibition.

That sets up a dynamic where it is in the best interest of the supporters of BSR to push their initiative and to reject, either overtly or through failure to support, the CRMLA initiative. Since CRMLA will have the money for paid signature gatherers, it shouldn’t affect their ballot chances, but it could cost them if BSR supporters don’t support CRMLA on the ballot. If both make the ballot, it is in BSR supporters’ best interest to vote no on CRMLA, as the initiative with the most votes will become law. CRMLA will attract more of the non-toking voters who support good legalization and BSR will have to offset that with toking voters who support better legalization.

Thus, two initiatives create a situation that guarantees some marijuana smokers will vote to maintain prohibition, either by rejecting the sole CRMLA on the ballot out of spite or by splitting some pro-legalization votes between the CRMLA and BSR on the ballot, increasing the chances neither will pass.

Every marijuana consumer should pledge to support all forms of legalization to make the ballot. They all beat marijuana prohibition and they need every vote from our side. Fight for the better legalization, sure, give the voters that option, but accept that they may have to choose the good legalization before they’re ready for the better legalization.

And who knows, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe by 2016, legalization is so popular more voters end up supporting the better legalization. Thirteen months is forever in politics.

Russ Belville

"Radical" Russ Belville is a blogger, podcaster, and host of The Russ Belville Show, a daily two-hour talk radio show fo