By Vaishnavee Sharma
BU News Service
The Boston University College Democrats gathered at the Yawkey Center for Student Services on Thursday night for a talk on Ballot Question Four, organized by the College of Arts and Sciences’ Student Program.
Ballot Question Four, also known as the Massachusetts Marijuana Legalization Initiative, aims to legalize recreational marijuana use. The initiative will appear on the November 8 ballot and would allow individuals above the age of 21 to use, grow and possess marijuana so long as it is under 10 ounces, on private property and under 1 ounce in public.
Speaking at the event was writing professor Seth Blumenthal and initiative drafter Adam Fine.
Blumenthal offered the audience a historical analysis of marijuana use and its stigmatization in the United States. He delved into the political and social milieus, particularly under previous Republican presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, which brought about the primary oppositional theory to marijuana use and legalization: the gateway theory.
Calling it “a lens into America’s deepest, darkest anxieties,” Blumenthal said that the theory has racialized origins.
“It was a representation of the ‘other’,” Blumenthal said. “Many historians point to the coinciding of the rise of the theory with the arrival of immigrants. Their arrival was in many ways represented through representations of drug use…and signified the invasion of American morality. The term ‘marijuana’ itself had its racialized origins to signify the other.”
Blumenthal said that the gateway theory is preserved by the ban on marijuana use.
“Under the current system, if you are a first-time offender, it’s the judge’s discretion,” Blumenthal said. “So we have a racist system of mass incarceration, because 10 percent of the white population is involved with marijuana, but conviction rates are higher and sentences are longer among the 10 percent of the African American population that uses it.”
Because the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug, it cannot receive federal funding for research. The gateway theory thus, Blumenthal said, lacks any scientific evidence.
“One of the most prominent arguments by the gateway theorists is that marijuana changes our brains. Yes it does, but so does tobacco, alcohol, lead paint and car fumes. So the idea that marijuana fries our brains is an exaggeration” Blumenthal said. “Marijuana has also shown reverse gateway tendencies, in that many opioid addiction cases are treated with marijuana. So most proponents of the gateway theory, such as cops and politicians, are not qualified and do not have the research to support it.”
“The movement to legalize marijuana is a people’s movement,” Fine said. Fine is an attorney who was part of the Ballot Question Four initiative drafting committee. He was also part of the committee that drafted Colorado’s Amendment 64.
“Our initiatives are symbolic of how wrong the war on drugs has been. If you are black, you are 8.5 times more likely to be arrested for distribution and 3.3 times more likely to be arrested for possession,” Fine said. “We are not industry or profit driven, but represent a social justice movement.”
While Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh are against the initiative, Boston City Council President Michelle Wu and Councillor Tito Jackson have endorsed it.
“It is definitely a close match in Massachusetts. The state could be a game changer and become the first east coast state to legalize it,” Fine said. “It’s not going to happen unless young people get to the polls.”
Fine argued that legalization would not only bring in an estimated $100 million in taxes but would also provide gainful employment, purity testing and reinforce age restrictions. The ballot question will make no change in the existing laws around public use and driving under influence; both will remain illegal.
Fine also said that legalizing marijuana will remove the stigma associated with using it. This, in turn, will benefit the African American community and also the veterans.
“We come across so many cases where veterans are suffering from PTSD or anxiety disorders but are afraid to get the help they need, since currently, medical marijuana denies anonymity, and these people are afraid they will lose their federal benefits if they are on-record marijuana users,” Fine said.
Victor Vuong, president of the Boston University College Democrats, said he supports legalization.
“I don’t think it is a sensible resource of our law enforcement to be handling marijuana cases, particularly because it is unfair to label it as harmful while studies show alcohol is worse,” Vuong said. “The time of law enforcement officers will be better spent focusing on other types of crimes, so to speak.”