In Depth: Public health impact of legalizing pot

January 30, 2017 04:47 PM

A number of states across the country have chosen to legalize marijuana for recreational use, including Massachusetts. However, pot remains illegal in the eyes of the federal government and neighboring states like New York and Vermont. Officials in those states are concerned about the possible impact. 

It's been a long time coming for supporters of legalized marijuana in Massachusetts.

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"Obviously it's something that a lot of people have been pushing for a number of years," noted Andy Parkman, a voter.

The movement started a decade ago with the decriminalization of a small amount of pot. Getting caught with an ounce or less was a civil offense.

"Then there was the passage of medicinal marijuana dispensaries in Massachusetts," explained Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer.

However, on Election Day, voters signed off on making pot legal for recreational purposes. While it remains illegal in the eyes of federal law, Massachusetts is one of eight states in the nation where recreational pot is now legal.

Starting on December 15, adults 21 years or older can possess up to 10 ounces inside their home and up to an ounce outside. Residents can also grow marijuana, up to 12 plants per household. Pot shops are set to open in 2018.

"I actually did vote ‘yes’ for it. I think the idea of have the state potentially having more income or revenue from it was appealing," reasoned Michael Taylor, another voter.

"I don't know how to think of it honestly, ‘cause that means you could walk down the street and smoke a joint. That's not acceptable to me," countered Samantha, another voter.

Both sides continue to debate the issue. Some say marijuana is a gateway drug that could lead to the use of harder substances, but supporters say it's not a gateway drug at all, citing research that shows the majority of marijuana users don't go on to use harder drugs.

WEB EXTRA: CEO of medical marijuana company discusses Massachusetts legalizing recreational pot

State lawmakers are working on regulation. Some are calling for higher taxes. Under the new rules, recreational pot will be subjected to a 12 percent tax -- 6.25 percent in state sales tax, a 3.75 percent excise tax and local municipalities can impose an additional two percent.

However, the major concern is about public health -- the police enforcement of driving while under the influence. They're also watching closely for packaging with edibles like candy and brownies laced with pot.

"There are a lot of concerns there of how this could be a temptation to our youth," acknowledged Gina Armstrong, the Pittsfield director of public health. "We want to make sure that there are policies in place that we’ll really be watching out for our youth."

Across the state line, law enforcement in New York is also concerned.

"The fact that it's legal in Massachusetts will impact us somewhat in New York State. Being that we're right on the border. Again how it's dispensed," pointed out Rensselaer County Sheriff Pat Russo.

It's a quick drive from Rensselaer County to Massachusetts.

Sheriff Pat Russo says it could be a problem if New York residents can go to the Bay State, buy marijuana and bring it back.

"If you're in possession of more than 25 grams, it's a B misdemeanor. If you were to purchase an ounce of marijuana in Massachusetts and bring it back into New York State, it would be over 25 grams," Russo warned.

He says the other dilemma is that New Yorkers could smoke it there and drive back under the influence.

"If we see we're having a problem with people driving back into New York State, then we'll increase our drug interdiction along those highways," he assured.

As for Vermont, Governor Peter Shumlin was worried neighboring states like Massachusetts would move forward with pot legislation. That's why his office says he pushed a bill to make pot legal. It was approved in the Senate but failed in the House. Shumlin says the new governor, Phil Scott, will not be ready to sign a legalization bill.


Dan Bazile

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