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Massachusetts Miracle? A Wicked-Close Race Breaks Wide Open

October 19, 2016
Boston, United States - August 6, 2014: People meander about the streets of downtown Boston near the Old State House, which is surrounded by newer and taller buildings. Built in 1713, the Old State House was the seat of the Massachusetts General Court until 1798 and is the oldest surviving public building in Boston.
Legalization proponents in Massachusetts woke up to a stunner this morning. The Boston Globe reported that Question 4, the state measure to legalize and regulate the adult use of cannabis, has jumped out to a 15-point lead in the latest poll.

A WBUR poll conducted last week found that 55 percent of voters now lean in favor of the measure, with 40 percent opposed. That’s a movement of 10 percentage points—an enormous shift in politics—from last month, when the same poll found the race split 50–45. 

A stunner: Legalization in Massachusetts now leads 55% to 40%.

The poll marks a momentous turnaround in the legalization race. Last spring, Question 4 advocates found themselves facing an electorate little interested in legalization. State officials including Gov. Charlie Baker, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, and Attorney General Maura Healey came out strongly opposed to the measure. Their vocal opposition, laid out in a Globe op-ed, drove early negatives on the measure. “Kids in states that have legalized marijuana have easier access to the drug,” they claimed, contrary to the early data from Colorado and Washington.

Early polling had the measure losing, 50 percent to 40.

Then, just after Labor Day, something changed. The polls reversed themselves. One survey had the voters running 53–41 in favor of legalization. A September poll from WBUR found the split 50–45 in favor of passage.

What led to the turnaround?

“Two things,” says Jim Borghesani. He’s the communications director for the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Massachusetts, the Yes on 4 folks. “First, we never quite believed the early polls. We thought it was close, but we didn’t think we were underwater. Those early polls didn’t reach voters using cell phones, and our base is a younger base.” Polls show voters in their 20s and 30s tend to be the most supportive of legalization.

The second thing that’s happened, says Borghesani, is that political leaders and medical professionals have now come out to publicly support Question 4. That has gone a long way to help combat opponents’ misleading campaign claims.

In the past two months, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Rep. Seth Moulton, Rep. Michael Capuano, and former Gov. William Weld have all come forward to support the measure publicly. So has Boston City Council President Michelle Wu as well as former state troopers, police officers, and state assistant attorney generals. Retired Boston Police Lt. Tom Nolan, who looks like he plays a tough Boston cop on a TV show about tough Boston cops, called Question 4 “the smaht choice.”

Widespread support from doctors and nurses has proven to be a powerful political signal. “We now have more than a hundred physicians supporting us,” Borghesani says. Those supporters include Dr. Alan Wartenberg, former president of the state chapter of the American Society of Addiction Medicine, and Dr. Susan Lucas, who taped this video for the campaign:

Last week a third factor entered the race: Rick Steves.

The happy cannabis crusader

I happened to be on a three-day excursion across Massachusetts last week, accompanying my daughter on a tour of prospective colleges. Practically everywhere I went, I heard the warm, reassuring voice of the PBS travel show host. Steves was barnstorming across the state for Question 4. (Read more about the tour from Leafly correspondent Dan McCarthy.

Rick Steves Question 4

In this 2012 photo, travel guide author and marijuana legalization supporter Rick Steves holds a plastic marijuana leaf necklace as he sits with a poster used to advertise his travel business in Edmonds, Wash. (Elaine Thompson/AP)

In the pages of the Boston Globe and the Daily Hampshire Gazette, Steves laid out many of the same arguments that helped pass Initiative 502 in his (and my) home state of Washington in 2012. But this time around, Steves had four years of positive experience and data to work with. “What we’ve found is no rise in crime, no increase in teen use, and our arrests for possession have gone to nearly zero,” I heard him tell morning host Bill Newman on WHMP in Northampton.

As he spoke, you could practically hear votes flip for Question 4. As a trusted icon reassuring wary Americans about cannabis legalization, Steves has no peer. He helped open my mind four years ago, and he did the same for untold numbers of voters in the Northeast.

On Friday, as Steves turned north toward Maine and its own legalization campaign, legalization opponents in Massachusetts announced that Sheldon Adelson, prohibition’s Daddy Warbucks, had given the No on 4 campaign a much-needed infusion of $1 million. The timing may have been a coincidence. But it sure felt like a rearguard action to shore up the losses inflicted by the gregarious travel guide.

Old fears die hard

It’s impossible to prove that Steves’s statewide tour bumped the new poll numbers, but it certainly didn’t hurt. And it’ll be interesting to see how Adelson’s $1 million donation plays out over the next three weeks. That money will buy a lot of TV advertising time. And ads like the one below, created by the Campaign for a Safe and Healthy Massachusetts, can be strong persuaders.

For those of us living in legal states, it’s easy to forget how tough it can be to assure voters that legalization won’t unleash havoc in the streets. I gave two radio interviews in Boston last week, and the same questions came up again and again. What about the stories we hear about kids eating edibles and ending up in the ER? Why are drugged driving numbers spiking? (They aren’t.) Won’t Big Marijuana just steamroll the legislature once they start making a profit?

Of course, a billion-dollar cannabis industry already exists in Massachusetts. It’s simply underground, untaxed, and unregulated. But legalization opponents clearly see child-danger, impaired driving, and the specter of big marijuana as themes that will resonate with voters.

I’m confused. Isn’t this a reliably blue state?

Yes and no. When it comes to politics, there are two states of Massachusetts.

On the Electoral College map, the state runs so deeply liberal that Pantone could use it to define the color blue. Massachusetts has tipped red only twice—for Eisenhower and Reagan—since 1924.  Boston practically invented the liberal Democrat: the Kennedys, Tip O’Neil, Michael Dukakis, John Kerry, Elizabeth Warren.

Internally, Massachusetts is a different beast. Republican governors—William Weld, Mitt Romney, and current Gov. Charlie Baker—regularly find favor. “People assume Massachusetts is progressive in a uniform way, but that’s not the case,” says Dan Delaney, a former state official and current political consultant in Boston. “We’re a blue-blue-blue state, but we also have a strong working-class, Puritan ethos.” Delaney, by the way, is a firm believer in medical marijuana but came out opposed to Question 4. Massachusetts: It’s complicated.

A prim and proper thread is woven into the local culture. Shirts stay buttoned up. Skirts brush ankles. There’s a reason “banned in Boston” was once shorthand for prudish censorship.

The state, and Boston in particular, is also a global hub for health care practice and research. Questions of addiction and the public-health ramifications of legalization play a larger role here than in just about any other state.

Cannabis and opioids in the Daily Hampshire Gazette: How the gateway myth gets perpetuated. Bruce Barcott/Leafly

The opioid crisis has hit the Northeast like a winter storm. Heroin and fentanyl stories have become a staple of the Boston Globe. When I was in the city last May, the Globe ran a front-pager about condo owners bracing their front doors with two-by-fours against break-ins by addicts seeking drugs and cash.

If science swayed votes, this would be an issue for legalization advocates to emphasize. Studies have shown that opioid use and overdose deaths decrease markedly in states that legalize medical and adult-use marijuana. We’re talking hundreds of human lives. But science takes time to seep into public consciousness. Those are recent studies, and they have to become common knowledge before they can overturn decades of propaganda about cannabis as a “gateway drug.” The opioid crisis was used to defeat legalization earlier this year in Vermont, and it’s being used by the No on 4 folks to call undecided voters into their camp. (Maine, meanwhile, was so excited by the potential for cannabis to curb overdose deaths that the state legislature considered adding opioid addiction as a qualifying condition for medical marijuana.)

It’s a tough issue to overcome. One day last week, the front page of Northampton’s Daily Hampshire Gazette carried a story headlined “Travel guru Steves argues for legal weed”. Directly beneath it, in what might have been a local editor’s misguided attempt at balance, ran a story headlined, “Fentanyl eyed as leading cause of opioid overdoses.”

Old drug war tropes die hard. But if the latest WBUR poll is an indication, they can be broken by straight talk from trusted sources, such as Rick Steves, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and the doctors and nurses of Massachusetts.

Bruce Barcott's Bio Image

Bruce Barcott

Leafly Senior Editor Bruce Barcott oversees news, investigations, and feature projects. He is a Guggenheim Fellow and author of Weed the People: The Future of Legal Marijuana in America.

View Bruce Barcott's articles

  • BDH

    Please don’t think this is a shoe in. You still have to get out and Vote for it. If you don’t know you local polling station you can google it. Please don’t forget to go vote. This is probably one of the most important elections ever.

    • LucidCharade

      I voted for it and now I’m buying fantastic eighths for $15 legally in Washington. 😀

  • DWallace32342

    “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”

    In 1998, the UN thought it could achieve a “drug-free world”. At this point anyone who truly believes that this is possible might be insane. It has been over 45 years and over a trillion dollars spent in the U.S. alone since Nixon launched his Drug War. Availability has increased, prices have dropped and overall usage has generally not changed. However certain groups of people have become very rich and powerful from the war (on both sides).

    The Lancet, one of the oldest and most well respected peer-reviewed medical journals in the world, recently concluded in their extensive drug policy review that prohibtion causes more harm than it prevents:

    “Policies meant to prohibit or greatly suppress drugs present an apparent paradox. They are portrayed by policy makers to be necessary to preserve public health and safety, and yet they directly and indirectly contribute to lethal violence, disease, discrimination, forced displacement, injustice, and the undermining of people’s right to health.”
    “on the basis of the evidence identified and analysed by the Commission, we conclude that the harms of prohibition far outweigh the benefits”
    [Csete et al. Public health and international drug policy. The Lancet Commissions. 2016]

    Economists of the London School of Economics, which included five Nobel Prize winners, recently completed an extensive study on the Drug War. They concluded that it is time to end it:

    “The pursuit of a militarized and enforcement-led global ‘war on drugs’ strategy has produced enormous negative outcomes and collateral damage.”
    “The strategy has failed based on its own terms. Evidence shows that drug prices have been declining while purity has been increasing. This has been despite drastic increases in global enforcement spending. Continuing to spend vast resources on punitive enforcement-led policies, generally at the expense of proven public health policies, can no longer be justified.”
    [Ending the Drug Wars: Report of the LSE Expert Group on the Economics of Drug Policy. 2014]

    Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has realized that decriminalization of all drugs and regulated legalization of cannabis is a better approach:

    “the fourth and final step is to recognize that drugs must be regulated precisely because they are risky. It is time to acknowledge that drugs are infinitely more dangerous if they are left solely in the hands of criminals who have no concerns about health and safety. Legal regulation protects health. Consumers need to be aware of what they are taking and have clear information on health risks and how to minimize them. Governments need to be able to regulate vendors and outlets according to how much harm a drug can cause. The most risky drugs should never be available “over the counter” but only via medical prescription for people registered as dependent users, as is already happening in Switzerland.”
    “The widespread criminalization and punishment of people who use drugs, the over-crowded prisons, mean that the war on drugs is, to a significant degree, a war on drug users — a war on people” -Nobel Prize Winner, Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan

  • dee

    I hope the legalization bill passes. Besides the state coffers, I really think the elderly can really benefit from legalization, as they may be too shy to ask their doctors for certification, and are most in need of medicine that doesn’t have unpleasant, and in some cases, intolerable, side effects. Conversely, it is the same demographic that has the strongest opposition to the bill. There is still time to submit editorials to local newspapers, and with solid information, perhaps their fears can be allayed and they realize the benefits for their well being.

  • massvocals

    First of all: Mixing the opium war with cannabis is probably foolish principle The prohibitionist do this to scare voters , ,The question is well answer however consideration the evidence on both subjects which is due to one is addicting which is opium and the other , Cannabis is not , however NOTE : Ibogaine root is total cure for opium addiction takes only one dose , that it … so asked your state reps and law makers why this is not legal ? instead of years on meth or other drugs much of the control is still base on law enforcement which fails again police can not stop this EVER understanding this and how to repeal the drug laws will open the truth and save lives law makers should end prohibition because it does not work for the citizen , law makers should provide employment opportunity fixing union dispatch system and equal employment law however they do not vote them out NOW ;;;
    Cannabis however has many useful purposes , so BY people petition process ( because law makers have no respect to real solutions ) we must come to vote question 4 as YES and then legalizing it for all of those reason Cannabis will give employment in industrial , medical , as well as nature hemp crops as a rotation crop for fields which are depleted form organic matter , YES vote is wise move for profit sake and end of eradication foolishness at cost of millions Then instilling a meliorate god given system which gives value to earth and everyone , you will see the truth when its totally legalize and all the prohibitionist heads roll out of office , for it has been years in making wasted statues and billions of tax payer dollars to eradicate this plant with for any amount of history benefit us and our bodies , everyone please remember whey MPP is doing state by state and then federal attack on prohibition This is there plan its correct its way to end this war on cannabis vote YES

  • massvocals

    one more fact Diving under influence DUID This , issue if there was a test to test delta 9 THC < which there is not !!! which means all drug test for employment are frauds as they only test residue or metabolite which has no per se effect having stated this the truth is any legal test if there was one could be refuse under the 5th amen , and having no test means nothing , Considering with alcohol testing you agree to contact to wave your right to travel ( constitutional ) and asked permission to wit License under contact law they add you must take a 1 test if asked or lose your license for 90 + days ,
    therefore the police have means to accuse only , They have cams and can record behavior while driving behind you The police can make a probable cause stop / just like Alcohol , and the driver can contest m that is due process , the police have no point here ?