By Phillip Smith
Over, the past decade, New England has quietly emerged as a center of marijuana law reform. Outside of the West, no other region of the country has matched the advances of that historic corner of America bounded by New York, Canada, and the North Atlantic. Is there something in the maple syrup?
When New England comes to mind, people tend to think of the leaves turning in the fall, the wild and rocky Maine seacoast, Vermont’s Green Mountains, or Boston and its historic role in the American Revolution. But given what the region has accomplished in terms of marijuana policy, perhaps it’s better to think of it as an ongoing social experiment, and the question to ask is: Why New England?
New England consists of six states — Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont — with a combined population of 14.4 million. It is dominated by megalopolitan Boston, whose 7.4 million residents make up more than half the region’s residents. But all six states combined still contain fewer people than Florida, New York, Texas, or California.
Of those six states, half have already passed medical marijuana laws (Maine, Rhode Island, and Vermont) and a third have already decriminalized pot possession (Maine and Massachusetts). In both cases, New England scores well above the national average. In fact, outside of New England and the West, from the Dakotas to the Carolinas and from the Rio Grande to the Potomac, the landscape for pot law reform has been largely harsh and barren.
And New Englanders aren’t resting on their laurels. The region is intent on remaining in the pot reform vanguard. Whether it’s medical marijuana, decriminalization, or legalization, New Englanders are keeping the pressure on.
In Connecticut, where Republican Gov. Jodi Rell vetoed a medical marijuana bill in 2007, current Democratic Gov. Dan Malloy is pushing both medical marijuana and decriminalization bills, the latter as part of a broader corrections reform package. In Rhode Island, which already has a medical marijuana law, the licensing of dispensaries began this month. Legislators there are considering both decriminalization and legalization bills.
In Maine, where possession of up to 2.5 ounces is already decriminalized, there is a bill to double that to five ounces — and to decriminalize the cultivation of up to six plants, as well. In Massachusetts, where voters decriminalized marijuana through the initiative process in 2008, activists continue to push the envelope. Both medical marijuana and legalization bills have been filed.
In New Hampshire, where a medical marijuana bill was vetoed by Gov. John Lynch (D) in 2009, a new medical marijuana bill passed the House earlier this month and awaits consideration by the Senate. In Vermont, which already has medical marijuana, a bill to allow two nonprofit dispensaries to open up is moving. So is a decriminalization bill endorsed by Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin.
While the passage of these bills is by no means assured, the battles are being fought and advances are being made. Observers of the scene say that’s only par for the course in a region that has been a crucible for progressive social movements since the days of John Adams and Paul Revere.
It’s not only the Revolutionary War heritage, of course; New England has been the home of critical social thinkers such as Emerson and Thoreau, a hotbed of the abolitionist movement in the 19th Century, birthplace of the anti-nuclear movement in the 20th Century, and among the first areas to feel the impact of the Industrial Revolution.
It also the land of participatory democracy through its storied town meetings. And it is the most politically liberal region of the country. Four of its six state houses are controlled by Democrats, and even the region’s Republicans are moderate compared to the rest of the country. It is also home to the nation’s only socialist senator, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and only independent governor, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island (formerly a moderate Republican).
Not least of all, it is also hosts one of the densest concentrations of college students in the land. New England is home to Harvard, Yale, Brown, and Dartmouth (half of the Ivy League), as well as MIT, half of the historically liberal arts women’s colleges known as the Seven Sisters, and the Five Colleges consortium in Western Massachusetts. The Boston area in particular is crawling with students.
“In New England, we have a rich history of standing up and speaking truth to power dating back to even before this country was founded,” said Tom Angell, a New Englander born and bred, who rose through the ranks as an activist with Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) at the University of Rhode Island and as staff in the national office SSDP in Washington, DC, before taking his current position as communications director for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). “This is really in our blood,” he said.
Angell pointed to the critical role of student activists in the region. “We have this enormous concentration of colleges and universities, and, at least from a Rhode Island perspective, many of the campaigns we’ve seen over the past few years were initiated by or happened with members of SSDP chapters,” he said. “Students from the University of Rhode Island and Brown founded the Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition and did all the legwork building coalitions” that led to passage of the medical marijuana bill there, he said.
A relatively small population in the region also plays a role, activists said. “The populations in New England are smaller, and it’s easier to get public education done,” said Morgan Fox, a spokesman for the Marijuatarget=”_blank”na Policy Project. “There is also a lot of public support for reform, as well as a tradition of independent thinking regarding any type of policy issues.”
“There are fewer people here and less bullshit,” said Cliff Thornton, a long-time Connecticut-based drug reformer. “California alone has almost three as many people as all New England. When you understand that, you understand why there are fewer voices for prohibition.”
New England is fertile ground for reform, said Thornton, who was quick to add that he was not just talking about pot law reform and was in fact critical of reformers who concentrated solely on marijuana. “It seems like all of a sudden everyone just woke up,” Thornton said. “Every damned week, there is some type of forum on marijuana or prohibition or prison. I think here in New England we’ve reached critical mass, and people feel safer now coming out against the drug war.”
But critical mass doesn’t just suddenly happen, and it is here that the region’s more immediate history of drug reform activism plays a role. To take just one regional example, the Boston Freedom Rally, the nation’s second-largest marijuana reform event (behind Seattle’s Hempfest) has been going on since 1989, and the MassCann activists associated with it have spent the last decade running non-binding public policy questions on medical marijuana, decriminalization, and legalization. They have never lost, and that wins them some leverage at the state house.
“Here in Massachusetts, 20 years of activism has played a key role in getting us to where we are today,” said MassCann’s Bill Downing. “Massachusetts is so active because we have a history, a tradition of civil activity here, and many people in Massachusetts believe it’s their patriotic duty; that’s how democracy works.”
“Activism has made a tremendous impact in New England,” said Thornton. “I’ve been doing this for a long time, but now other organizations are springing up, and over the years, we’ve garnered a lot of credibility. We’ve got some good activists now and they have been able to turn a lot of people around.”
MassCann’s Downing also saluted young people and suggested that the region’s marijuana reform movement has matured enough to allow for a changing of the guard. “We have so many young people in Boston,” he said. “For years, we’ve been reaching out to them, and it’s paying off. Our board of directors just had a sea change, with a lot of new people and a lot of women coming in. Last year, we didn’t have any women on the board; now there are five.”
For reasons historical and demographic, cultural and geographic, New England is clearly in the vanguard of marijuana law reform. And, as MassCann’s Downing noted, the same spirit that animated the Founding Fathers animates reformers today.
“People forget that the major reason marijuana law reform is good is because we are more free,” he said.