Marijuana legalization bill with origins in the Pioneer Valley has hearing on Beacon Hill

By Rachel Tumin

On March 2, the Massachusetts state legislature’s Joint Committee on the Judiciary heard testimony on Senate bill no. 1801, “An Act to Regulate and Tax the Cannabis Industry.” This was the second time in less than six months the legislature heard testimony on the subject, with the Joint Committee on Revenue having held a hearing on an identical House bill in early October 2009. The bill was written and brought forth by Richard M. Evans, of Northampton, Mass. 

When asked about the likelihood of the bill passing into law, Evans said he feels his legislation is a long-shot.

“[It] doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell,” he said, since “no legislator would touch it with a ten foot pole.”

He explained that his primary goal in petitioning this bill was to facilitate discourse on the prospect of legalizing.

He said he wants to “stimulate discussion on how to [decriminalize and regulate marijuana], not whether-or-not it should happen.”

He went on to note that the current bill only represents a “prototype,” just a suggested outline for how the process could happen.

Steven Epstein, treasurer of MassCann – the Massachusetts chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) – helped explain the goals of the legislation itself.

Regulation and taxation of the cannabis industry would have several effects. Licensing and regulations would enact safeguards for all those involved from production through consumption. Evans calculates that taxing the cannabis industry could garner at least half a billion dollars in revenue annually in the state of Massachusetts alone.

Epstein added that passing such legislation would also allow for the reallocation of funds currently used for investigating, prosecuting and incarcerating individuals for marijuana offenses.

Decriminalization would end what supporters consider an “unconstitutional restriction,” that, as Epstein said, “creates crime where there is no moral culpability.”

During the March 2 hearing, the Joint Committee on the Judiciary heard testimony from a diverse group of advocates. Bill Downing of Reading, Mass., a self-described small-business owner and elected town meeting member, argued that marijuana prohibition is an obvious failure, given its continued presence and use in our culture. Downing also said that in criminalizing what he sees as a matter of “privacy and personal liberty,” the government “weakens the moral impact of the term ‘illegal.’”

Following Downing, the committee heard testimony from Jack Cole, the Executive Director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). Cole retired as a detective lieutenant from the New Jersey State Police after 26 years of service, including 14 years of undercover narcotics work. In his testimony, Cole cited that of the 39 million nonviolent arrests in the War on Drugs since the Reagan administration, nearly half have been for marijuana-related charges. He believes this “misappropriation of resources” is a leading factor in police departments’ inability to “solve significant crimes” such as rape and murder.

The legislature also heard testimony from a grandmother seeking custody of her own grandson. She described herself as a college-educated computer technician with no criminal record, who has raised four children, the oldest of whom recently graduated from college with honors and is now a teacher in Boston Public Schools. Although she no longer uses marijuana, she says she has been denied guardianship of the child based on earlier admitted recreational use.

Student leaders from Suffolk University and Emerson College also gave testimony, with one student asking the committee, “When before have the people come to you practically begging to be taxed?”

Testimony was also offered by Scott Matalon, owner of Sting Ray Body Art in Boston and a community leader in the city. Matalon cited the 2002 National Survey on Drug Use and Health and the U.S. Department of Health Reports in arguing that growing marijuana in the U.S. alone in a $24 billion larger industry than corn – which, according to Business Week, is the largest crop in the United States, valued at $48.6 billion in 2009.

In addition to noted cannabis activist Epstein, the legislators heard testimony from the bill’s author, Evans. Evans began by contending that marijuana use is “inextricably embedded in our culture. It is ubiquitous,” he said. He continued to point out that in the past eight years, all 45 pro-cannabis reform policy questions presented to Massachusetts voters “have passed by substantial margins.” Even without a solid chance of becoming law, Evans reiterated the importance of opening a dialogue on how the state of Massachusetts could move to decriminalize, tax, and regulate the cannabis industry.

Video of testimony from the March 2 hearing can be found on the MassCann website, and more information on cannabis taxation and regulation can be found on Evans’ website

Rachel Tumin can be reached at [email protected]