The Empire Strikes Back: New England Edition

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Paul Danish/Sue France

If you think this year’s fleet of marijuana legalization initiatives will sail effortlessly and majestically to victory, think again.

Unlike 2012, when Colorado and Washington’s initiatives faced only desultory opposition, this year’s initiatives are already encountering organized, motivated and presumably well-funded opponents — who already may be drawing blood.

Consider the case of two initiatives that should have had smooth sailing — those in Massachusetts and Maine. In Massachusetts, the anti-legalization forces got in an early punch. On March 4, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and State Attorney General Maura Healey wrote an op-edit piece for the Boston Globe calling for a “no” vote on the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol initiative.

On March 30, the Associated Industries of Massachusetts, the state’s largest employer group, announced its opposition to the initiative. Then on April 14 Baker, Walsh and Robert DeLeo, speaker of the Massachusetts House formed a political committee to oppose the initiative, the Campaign For A Safe and Healthy Massachusetts. Two weeks later, on April 27, the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents announced its opposition to the initiative.

The timing of the announcements has the feel of an orchestrated roll-out. And the arguments being used by the opponents also suggest considerable coordination on their part.

They claim a spike in traffic accidents, emergency room visits and teenage marijuana use in Colorado and Washington, cite studies purporting to show teenage brain damage and recycle the old “today’s pot is vastly more potent than your hippie parents pot” canard.

They also claim pot is addictive (a claim usually based on a dodgy definition of addiction) and point to a jump in the number of fatal car accidents in which the driver tested positive for marijuana (two-thirds of whom also tested positive for alcohol).

At least one poll suggests the neo-prohibitionist push-back may be having an impact. A Boston Globe/Suffolk University poll taken in the first week of May found that Massachusetts voters were closely split on the legalization question, with 43 percent in favor and 46 percent opposed. This compares with a poll conducted from April 1-10 by the Western New England University Polling Institute that found 57 percent in favor and 35 percent opposed.

This may not be as dramatic a change as it sounds. Two years ago a Boston Globe poll found 48 percent in favor and 47 percent opposed, which suggests relatively little movement in public opinion. So it may be that the difference between Western New England University’s poll and the Globe’s poll results may be due to different methodologies used by the two polling companies, rather than to a sharp switch in public opinion.

Still, the movement between the two Boston Globe polls, though relatively small, was toward a “no” vote on legalization. Coming on the heels of the start of what looks to be a well-organized, sustained campaign against legalization, that should be a cause for concern among pro-legalization supporters in Massachusetts.

Organized opposition is also building in Maine. Legalization supporters collected a huge number of signatures to put the Maine Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol on the ballot, and survived a shabby attempt by the Maine Secretary of State to invalidate tens of thousands of them and keep the initiative off the ballot. The initiative was formally approved for the November ballot after a court intervened.

But Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a national anti-legalization organization led by former Rhode Island U.S. Representative (and recovering alcoholic) Patrick Kennedy and anti-pot activist Kevin Sabet, has an active presence in the state and is already hard at work ginning up a narrative similar to the one being pumped out in Massachusetts.

And Maine polling is also showing signs of moving south. A poll conducted in March by Critical Insights found legalization favored by 55 percent of Maine voters, which would be good news except for the fact that a poll conducted a year earlier by the same polling company had found 65 percent support. 

A 10-percentage point drop in support should set off alarm bells among supporters, even if they are ahead. In Vermont, an attempt to legalize recreational pot in the legislature failed. Vermont had been widely touted as likely to be the first state in which marijuana would be legalized by a legislature rather than by the initiative route.

A legalization bill passed the Vermont Senate, but was crushed in the state House, receiving on 28 yea votes in the 150-member chamber.

Part of the reason for headwinds in all three states is that New England has been experiencing a surge in opiod use, along with a major spike in fatal overdoses. That seems to creating fertile ground for marijuana legalization opponents to sow reefer madness seeds in.

What this likely means is that passage of none of this year’s initiatives is going to be a slam dunk, and if legalization advocates don’t respond forcefully — respond now — some of them could lose. 

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