By Matt Murphy
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, JUNE 7, 2016...Reports about the disproportionate impact of the legal marijuana industry on minority and low-income neighborhoods and families deserve a closer look, according to Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins, who so far has focused his opposition to the legalization ballot question on its health impacts.
A recent Politico Magazine cover story and Denver Post investigations have explored how the marijuana industry has proliferated in low-income communities in Denver, Colorado, and the impact that has had on economic development.
A separate report published by the Colorado Department of Public Health earlier this year found that juvenile arrests for marijuana-related crimes such as possession rose 5 percent since legalization took effect in that state, driven wholly by a spike in arrests of black and Latino teens. While white juvenile arrests declined 8 percent between 2012 and 2014, black juvenile arrests increased 58 percent and Latino juvenile arrests climbed 29 percent.
Tompkins, a leading voice for criminal justice reform in Massachusetts, said he is reticent to discuss how law enforcement in other states operate without knowing all the facts, but has read the reports and is concerned.
"If that is in fact the case, then that speaks to the larger picture of not only the use of marijuana being able to harm one physically, but also if this does break down with black and Latino and low income individuals being singled out that has to be looked at," Tompkins told the News Service.
Jim Borghesani, the spokesman for the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana like Alcohol, said Massachusetts and Colorado criminal laws concerning juvenile possession are markedly different, making the comparison a difficult one.
"I'm sure that Sheriff Tomkins is aware that juvenile possession in Massachusetts is a civil offense, unlike Colorado's criminal offense, so his statement is perplexing. Equally perplexing is his lack of comment on the historic racial arrest disparity under the current prohibition system, which we seek to change," Borghesani said.
He also touted the local control, through zoning, allowed for by the ballot question.
"Our initiative provides significant local control over the location, hours and manner of marijuana businesses, and provides an opt-out measure for communities. Results show that legalization is working in Colorado and it will work in Massachusetts," Borghesani said.
In March, the Massachusetts Sheriffs Association came out in opposition to the ballot question to legalize marijuana for anyone aged 21 and older. At the time, the sheriffs focused on the health implications of making marijuana more accessible to people.
Tompkins, who was appointed sheriff in 2013, said he supported the 2008 ballot initiative to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, but believes the dangers of full legalization outweigh any criminal justice benefits from incarcerating fewer people on minor drug crimes.
"I do not want to see all of these folks in jail if there's another way for them to provide for themselves, but I really have to go back to the health issues," Tompkins said.
Elaborating, Tompkins said, "I'm concerned with the ability to seriously manipulate the THC levels, and when you do that just about anything can go off the rails. If you can now put these things in gummy bears and brownies and the levels are jacked up to an outrageous percentage, god knows what can happen."
Marijuana legalization backers have said the drug is less addictive and "toxic" than alcohol and less likely to lead to violent or reckless behavior.
Responding last week to similar concerns among retailers about the potency of edibles, the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana like Alcohol said the proposed law would leave it to a state Cannabis Control Commission to develop regulations covering edibles, including labeling, packing, and portion measurement and said the campaign anticipates that Massachusetts would have the nation's strictest regulations that draw on experiences of other states.