By Alana Melanson
Supporters of marijuana's legalization are hailing the recent success of legal pot sales in Colorado as a sign of things to come elsewhere in the country -- maybe even as soon as 2016 in Massachusetts.
Colorado voters approved legalizing recreational marijuana for adults 21 and over in 2012, and the first stores to sell cannabis officially opened to long lines on Wednesday at the start of the new year.
The Denver Post -- which recently hired a marijuana editor -- reported Friday that, much to the surprise of fearful opponents who expected unruly customers and general mayhem, the first day of legal sales drew a peaceful, respectful and mellow crowd" to marijuana shops, with long lines of customers eager to legally partake.
"It's been a really surreal last 48 hours for those of us who have been advocating a really long time for reform," Allen St. Pierre, executive director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said Friday.
"I haven't heard of any reported overdose deaths, and I haven't heard anything about people going insane or running around the streets naked or having wild orgies," said William Downing, treasurer of the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition, the local affiliate of NORML.
"We've seen pretty much the beginning of the end of marijuana prohibition in the United States," he added. "You cannot unring the bell."
Bells could soon be ringing in Massachusetts. Having won decriminalization and the legalization of marijuana for medical use through the use of the ballot, activists are now planning to put a full legalization referendum before Massachusetts voters during the next presidential election, in 2016.
Not everyone is excited about it, though.
A. Wayne Sampson, executive director of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, an organization that had previously opposed legalizing medical marijuana, said the group is opposed to legalizing recreational marijuana and will do what it can to oppose any future ballot question.
"We are definitely going to be watching what takes place out there," Sampson said. "A lot of law-enforcement organizations across the country are aware of what's happening in Colorado and will certainly be watching for any trends that may develop that affect the law-enforcement community."
He said the chiefs group opposes legalization "because we see the direct negative effects both on society in general but also the related crime that is associated with drug use."
Sampson said his organization has worked with the state Department of Public Health to figure out security issues surrounding the medical-marijuana dispensaries approved by voters in 2012. He believes the rollout of the facilities may be an indicator of what could happen with recreational dispensaries.
"If it passes, then that is the law of the commonwealth of Massachusetts, and we have an obligation to protect each of our individual communities the best we can," he said. "And we will take an active role in ensuring the security of each of our communities the best we can."
Downing, who is treasurer of Bay State Repeal, the group spearheading the 2016 ballot effort, said a "tidal wave of public opinion" is building in support of legalizing marijuana in Massachusetts.
In October 2013, polls for the first time showed a clear majority of Americans -- 58 percent -- think the drug should be legalized, according to Gallup. That stands in sharp contract to the first time Gallup asked the question in 1969, when only 12 percent supported legalization.
Public support for legalization more than doubled in the 1970s, according to Gallup, growing to 28 percent. It then plateaued during the 1980s and 1990s before reaching 50 percent in 2011.
Colorado's retail experiment is a crucial test of whether marijuana can be sold like alcohol, kept from children and highly taxed, or whether pot proves too harmful to public health and safety for the legalization experiment to expand elsewhere.
Retail marijuana in Colorado is being heavily taxed, with a 10 percent tax per sale and a 15 percent excise tax based on the average market rate of the drug.
The state won't have the first round of receipts until late February, but it seems clear demand is strong. A trade group Thursday said three of its retail members reported between 600 and 800 customers the first day of sales.
Colorado has projected $67 million in annual marijuana tax revenue.
Downing said Massachusetts stands to recoup money that is currently winding up in the hands of gangs and cartels.
"And that's the other big, bad part -- not only are we losing all this capital out of the legal market at a huge pace, but some of it is going into the hands of the very worst people in the world," he said.
The state Legislature will review the 2016 initiative petition for legalization.
State Rep. Stephen DiNatale, a Fitchburg Democrat, said he hasn't made up his mind on the matter, and that he still has a great deal of research to do before he does.
He said it will be interesting to see how everything unfolds in Colorado, calling it the "test case," and he'll be watching closely.
"I think I'd like to see what it looks like a year from now, and some of the statistics relative to health concerns, crime, the whole issue with motor-vehicle operation and impairment," DiNatale said.
St. Pierre acknowledged that many questions remain unanswered, such as how those driving under the influence of marijuana will be handled, and whether children will have more access to cannabis with legalization.
Downing said the question of the effect on children is always one harped on by opponents, but he doesn't see continued prohibition as being an effective way to combat that. There are still many kids smoking pot today, he said, and marijuana prohibition began in 1913, long before it was outlawed at the federal level in 1937.
"If anybody thinks that, all of a sudden, it's going to start working, then I think that's the definition of insanity," Downing said.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.
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