The Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition (MassCann) is hardly a stoned cadre of spliff-roasting slackers. They don't have that luxury; way long ago, Bay State legislators screwed things up for potheads everywhere, and our hyperactive chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws has to correct past sins committed by our prude post-Puritan predecessors.
MassCann attorney Steve Epstein noted in a holiday greeting (headed "Hempy New Year"): "The coming year marks the one-hundredth anniversary of Massachusetts' first law interfering with free commerce in cannabis intended for human consumption." Indeed, roughly 300 years after lawmakers from Jamestown to Dedham required colonists to harvest Indian hemp seed, in 1911 Mass legislators became the first state anywhere to regulate "cannabis indica, cannabis sativa, or any other hypnotic drug." The penalty for unauthorized use: a $50 fine, or three months in the big house.
Other states, including Utah, Indiana, and Wyoming, followed suit soon after the commonwealth ban (dubbed "An act relative to the issuance of search warrants"), and by 1940 all 48 states regulated weed in some way. At the national level, the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act, pushed on behalf of timber interests bent on crippling the hemp industry, put federal restrictions on the crop, while a series of acts in the 1950s introduced harsh prison sentences for growers, users, and distributors. These days, NORML estimates, the war on marijuana costs taxpayers more than $7 billion a year for the prosecution of (and, in some cases, the incarceration of) more than three-quarters of a million Americans. According to the Journal of Contemporary Drug Problems: "it was only after marijuana had been outlawed that it began to become popular."
While Massachusetts initiated the buzz kill of the century, today's Bay State pot reformers have plenty to be proud of. Since a 2008 statewide ballot referendum, possession of less than one ounce of weed is no longer a criminal offense here, and last month voters were asked to weigh in on a slew of non-binding ballot questions — half for medical weed, and half for all-out legalization.
Without any paid advertising by MassCann or other weed-reform groups, between 54 and 70 percent of voters in 18 municipalities approved the marijuana questions. Those questions were meant to test waters for 2012, when there will likely be a statewide proposition on the sanctioning of medical marijuana, or the end of pot prohibition altogether.
[Right now] we have a misguided drug policy that creates crime," says Thomas R. Kiley, the former Massachusetts assistant attorney general who drafted the decriminalization statute for the Committee forSensible Marijuana Policy. "My basic belief is that the public is right . . . It's time to make peace [with marijuana policies] — not war."