Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Dr. Seth Blumenthal, contributing editor and lecturer at Boston University. He’s been tracking the roll out of recreational marijuana legalization in his home state of Massachusetts and provides this report. Enjoy!
As I sat behind the police chief while he spoke to the City Council in favor of a ban on marijuana dispensaries in my city–Newton, Massachusetts–I realized I was in trouble. Surrounding me in the public seating section, every other attendee held up a brightly colored “Opt Out” sign in silence. One nice woman even asked me if I wanted a sign, which I politely declined. After all, I was there to follow the chief and offer a rebuttal. As a historian with a focus on marijuana history, I had already been active as an academic endorser for Question 4 that legalized marijuana in 2016, and so I was asked to speak on behalf of a compromise that would limit dispensaries to no more than four, rather than the eight mandated in the commonwealth’s provisions.
Although 55% of Newton residents voted for legalizing recreational marijuana in 2016, a strong, vocal group organized to propose a ban on cannabis dispensaries within the city limits. Of the 351 municipalities in the state, more than 200 towns have imposed bans or temporary moratoriums on recreational pot operators. (You can see an interactive map of the bans here: http://www.wbur.org/news/2018/06/28/marijuana-moratorium-map ).
And so, after the chief finished to a rousing applause, I was called to speak against a ban, and on behalf of a compromise bill. I explained the context for legalization within the larger carceral reform effort. I also stressed the problems with limiting legal access and the pressure it will put on the illicit market, undermining the goal of legalization to create a robust, regulated and safe industry.
The last point I made, which was my favorite, was that Newton “opt-out” residents would have to accept that many of our 90,000-plus residents will be purchasing marijuana within the state, and that banning legal sales in Newton would continue our city’s long and embarrassing history of NIMBYism. The arguments that “opt-out” advocates made perpetuated the same suburban ethos that framed racial integration and low income housing as a threat decades earlier. Citing Lily Geismer’s important book on Massachusetts liberals, Don’t Blame Us, I explained the underlying privilege and racism that informed and motivated this NIMBY obsession with preserving the community. Looking at the map of municipalities opposing legal pot shops, the pattern follows the protectionary political resistance to diversity historically practiced in the wealthy, lily-white suburbs surrounding Boston.
After I finished talking and answered some questions, the councilors voted for the compromise I backed. My neighbors at the meeting, on the other hand, disagreed with me. As some trembled in anger, they questioned my credentials and my motivations. One even asked who was paying me to show up and speak for the “marijuana lobby.” (I wish!)
This “opt-out” crowd was fascinating to me. Made up of mostly older, white and affluent suburbanites, they were joined by a powerful and organized contingent of the city’s large Asian population. Somewhat saddened by this vitriol and surrounded by scowling baby boomers, my historian brain couldn’t help but to think, “What an amazing moment to be a drug scholar!” A truly transnational anti-marijuana group had coalesced against legalization right in front of my eyes!
Though the older, white “opt-out” suburbanites showed disgust at my mere presence, my Asian neighbors seemed genuinely perplexed. And so, after City Hall closed, I stood in the darkness with several Chinese neighbors until after 11 pm as I listened to their cultural perceptions of marijuana use as a “weakness” and how it threatened their idea of community and the “American dream.” “I know,” one woman told me, ”that if we just give people a chance to vote whether or not we should have marijuana dispensaries in Newton that the city will say no.”
I appreciated this sincere culture shock as I had just heard a fascinating ADHS talk by doctoral student Thomas Chan about China’s harsh approach to drug dealers and public executions under Chairman Mao. I didn’t have the time or inclination to explain marijuana’s long strange trip through American history, or how we have arrived at today’s legalization phase. But I learned an important lesson–to listen, and to consider the unique, varied and peculiar suburban anxieties and fears surrounding drugs that I have researched and written about as a historian.
In the end, the effort to ban pot shops in Newton failed by the same percentage as the initial vote to legalize in 2016. 55% of Newtonites supported legal pot shops in town, and 45% opposed. And, as expected, the “opt-out” group is arguing that the ballot, by including the “four store” compromise, was confusing to residents and they are demanding a re-vote. Perhaps they’ll get one.
But for me, as I begin to research and write about the history of drug education in public schools across various communities, this episode made me wonder if the effort to educate our youth is somewhat misplaced. Thus, I realized the audience I should consider for this book. In one of the more hopeful moments of this experience, I noticed the distinctive cover of Emily Dufton’s Grass Roots on one city councilor’s desk as he asked me questions during the meeting. As drug policies rapidly change, the adults also need better information. And it is our job as scholars of drug history to help that project along.