A funny thing happened along the way to what had seemed the inevitable roll-out of medical marijuana around the Bay State. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh got involved.
Massachusetts voters approved the medical use of pot in 2012. But 15 months after the law took effect, you still can’t buy the stuff legally. The state duly — and it looks, pretty reluctantly — wrote up regulations and set about securing applications from those who wanted to run dispensaries. A few scandals ensued (no one is surprised, right?) but the upshot appeared to be that Boston would be getting at least two dispensaries.
But Walsh isn’t about to let that happen. Last week, a letter from the mayor to the state raised concerns about inaccuracies in the dispensaries’ applications. But that was just a ruse, as Walsh made clear at a community meeting at Dorchester’s Pleasant Hill Baptist Church. He’s “dead set against the marijuana dispensaries,” he reportedly told those in attendance, vowing to “fight them as mayor of the City of Boston.”
Can Walsh really do that? In his oath of office, he swore to discharge his duties “agreeably to the rules and regulations of the . . . laws of the Commonwealth,” and you’d think that would mean all the laws, not just those of which he approves. Moreover the attorney general has said that cities and towns can’t just ban the dispensaries altogether. But there are loopholes aplenty. Boston could put the dispensaries on hold while it studies them further. It can use its nearly unbridled control over permitting and zoning to make sure that a proposed dispensary somehow just never passes muster. Delaying things long enough is really just as good as banning them outright.
So, yes, he really can do that.
What’s Walsh’s motivation here? Could it be that he really doesn’t believe all of the medical marijuana hype? Personally, I’ve noticed over the last few years — coinciding, interestingly enough, with decriminalization in 2008 — that pot smoking has become more pervasive and public. Perhaps naively, I just thought the kinds of conditions treated by marijuana were somehow on the rise, in the same way that suddenly everyone is now allergic to gluten. Indeed, every time I would come across a small group of folks gathered together, the distinctly sweet scent of pot in the air, my heart would instantly go out to them. What dread disease plagued them, I’d wonder? AIDS, hepatitis C, ALS, Parkinson’s?
Walsh, I suspect, is less credulous than me, instead regarding medical marijuana dispensaries as a sham, an end-run around prohibition and a step towards outright legalization.
He’s probably right. Marijuana has been on a roll (so to speak). Two states — Colorado and Washington — now allow it for recreational use, and another 18 and the District of Columbia have various rules (some quite loose) permitting it for medical purposes. In a recent interview with The New Yorker, President Obama said of pot, “I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol.” (Thinking like that makes it hard to justify harsh federal criminal penalties for mere consumption.) Meanwhile, a January poll by CNN found 55 percent of Americans in favor of eliminating bans on pot. Massachusetts residents feel the same way. A survey last month by WBUR found a plurality in favor of making pot legal.
Still, that leaves a lot who disagree and some of them, including the mayor, quite strongly. What we’re seeing from Walsh may be the beginnings of a pushback against what had once appeared a juggernaut towards legalization. At a minimum, Boston plans to be late to the party.
This column originally appeared in The Boston Globe on April 15, 2014.