Pot is Now Legal in Massachusetts…Sort of

By Zachary Siegel 12/16/16

For the next year, Massachusetts will enter a hazy but familiar legal gray area. 

Hand holding pot leaf.

On Thursday, pot became legal in Massachusetts for adults 21 and older. But there won’t be any retail stores for tokers to patronize until January 2018, which puts those who sell and use cannabis before then in what the Boston Globe calls a “legal gray zone.” 

Without the infrastructure of a licensed, regulated marketplace, selling cannabis will remain a crime punishable by up to two years in jail and a $5,000 fine. This hazy legal situation places Massachusetts’s cops and citizens in an awkward stance. 

Two critical questions are occupying the minds of cannabis users and law enforcement during this imperfect window between now and next year. Are cops going to charge dealers? And how do people who want to use cannabis before January 2018 do so within the letter of the law? 

The Massachusetts governor's office on Wednesday sent a letter addressing questions of enforcement and legality to Colonel Richard D. McKeon of Massachusetts State Police. The letter lays out what is legal, illegal, and the type of situations police are likely to encounter during the hazy period. 

“People who want to use marijuana are going to have to get it from the same sources they were getting it from before Dec. 15,” Jim Borghesani, one of the leaders who advocated for the Massachusetts marijuana legalization initiative, told the Globe. “The gray zone is not ideal, but there’s really no other way around it.”

This means, as the Globe put it, Bay State residents will have to continue to procure their cannabis the old-fashioned way: “from a guy who knows a guy.” 

Selling cannabis in any amount, to any person, of any age is still strictly a crime. But the situation Massachusetts is about to enter also occurred in 2012 after Colorado legalized cannabis. 

“Disconcerting and confusing” were the words chosen by Chief John Jackson of the Greenwood Village, Colorado Police Department to describe the less than ideal period when cannabis was sort of legal. “It puts your law enforcement in this gray area with no clear guidance on what to do,” said Jackson. 

John Suthers, the attorney general of Colorado who presided over the same legal gray zone, sounded the alarm with an unequivocal warning for Massachusetts cops: “It will be a mess for law enforcement.”

Massachusetts, however, decriminalized cannabis in 2008. Since then, criminal penalties for possession of one ounce or less have been replaced with civil penalties. Advocates say because cannabis is already decriminalized, not much will change until January.

While legal quandaries abound, states have been before where Massachusetts is now. It’s up to citizens to take it upon themselves to know how to act within the boundaries of the law. 

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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.

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