The Complexities of Cannabis

A panel debates the many issues surrounding the legalization of cannabis in Massachusetts
image of cannabis leaf with symbols of health care, criminal justice, and other related issues
Cannabis is “one of the most lucrative industries in the country,” said Andrea James. Illustration: Ex College
April 2, 2019

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The legalization of cannabis in Massachusetts might seem like a simple thing to some, but issues surrounding it—including legal, health, and business ones—are complicated. That’s what panelists concluded at a cannabis debate held at Tufts on March 29, hosted by the Experimental College.

For starters, Andrea James, founder and executive of the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, said that with communities across Massachusetts now starting to approve marijuana dispensaries, it’s important for citizens of any age—including those under twenty-one—“think about advocating for where that money is going,” she said.

“There is a huge amount of money now that is going to be generated through the sale of cannabis across the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Those sales, and the tax revenue that is derived from those sales, go into municipal budgets,” she noted. “What people in the community can do, regardless of their age, is really stay on top of where all this money is going and demand that the money is allocated to things . . . communities want to have funded.”

James was one of eight expert panelists who shared diverse perspectives on the impact of legalized cannabis in a discussion moderated by Ernest Anemone, an attorney and cannabis industry advisor. The event builds on the course Anemone is co-teaching this semester at the Experimental College—The Cannabis Debate: The Intersection of Science, Culture, and the Law—with John de la Parra, an ethnobotanist with dual appointments at the Harvard University Herbaria and the MIT Media Lab’s Open Agriculture Initiative.

Better known as marijuana, cannabis was legalized in Massachusetts in 2016 for recreational use by consumers at least twenty-one years old and can be purchased from licensed dispensaries across the state. Massachusetts legalized the use of medical marijuana in 2012. 

Legalization reflects a profound shift in public attitude toward cannabis—one that is far more accepting than even a decade ago, panelists said. That shift leaves many communities grappling with how cannabis impacts law enforcement and economic growth, bringing new scrutiny to issues of race, criminal justice, and social equity. Other questions surround the growing use of cannabis for health and pain reduction.

To talk about legalization’s broad impact, Anemone framed questions to panelists around the viewpoint of a fictional eighteen-year-old, introverted teenager from Roxbury, “Grace,” who is facing peer pressure to smoke marijuana to ease her feelings of anxiety and social isolation. The premise, including a brush a law enforcement official and worries about the health risks of buying marijuana on the black market, offered a platform for diverse perspectives.

Rachel Rollins, the Suffolk County district attorney, said that if Grace was her daughter and asked her for advice, she’d be grateful for an open talk. And if she is a person of color, Rollins would want her to know that “she is not held to the same standards of leniency” when it comes to things like drug possession.

Expanding on a point about the black market as a go-to source for many consumers, James said that “we have to take a close look at who are the people who make up the black market.” She also praised fellow panelist Shaleen Title, a commissioner on the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission, for her advocacy for reforms that will bring more women and people of color into “one of the most lucrative industries in the country. There are lots of ways we can describe people that are considered ‘black market’ sellers and users in the cannabis industry right now, but we still need to push to make sure there is inclusion and equity.”

Rollins agreed. “Let’s not talk lightly,” she said, about the fact that while drug laws contributed to the mass incarceration of people of color, those people are now not allowed to benefit from the legal cannabis industry, she said. “These are convictions that black and brown people got years ago, and now everyone making money on cannabis is white. Period. End of story. It is a racial disparity that is disgusting, and we are going to speak out about it.”

David Art, a Tufts professor of political science, called the war on drugs one of the “greatest self-inflicted wounds” on American society in his generation. He noted that even though the medical use of marijuana is not debated anymore, “there will be a debate on how we got here. There will be a debate on what the war of drugs was all about, who drove it, who’s responsible and how much we do owe to [victims] of that war in the form of reparations.”

On trends in social attitudes, Anemone pointed out that cannabis legalization has gained bipartisan support quickly and has emerged in a politically divided country as one of the few things people seem to agree on in both red and blue states.

Other panelists included John de la Parra; Aja N. Atwood, CEO and co-founder Trella Technologies, an agricultural technology company; and Dustin Sulak, director of Integr8 Health and co-founder of Healer.com.

The debate was the fifth and final installment of the Voices from the Edge lecture series, made possible by the generosity of Sarah and Tom Janover.

Laura Ferguson can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.

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