Vote Yes On Massachusetts Question 4

BOSTON - SEPTEMBER 17: A sign in support of Question 4 is raised in the air during the Boston Freedom Rally on Boston Common
BOSTON - SEPTEMBER 17: A sign in support of Question 4 is raised in the air during the Boston Freedom Rally on Boston Common in Boston on Sept. 17, 2016. Tens of thousands of people were expected to attend the two-day rally, which has gathered annually for over two decades. It includes musical acts and political messages in support of the legalization of marijuana. (Photo by Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Our punitive approach to marijuana has demonstrably harmful impacts on public safety, child welfare, tax revenues, health, education and housing equity, community revitalization, and police-community relations. There is reassuring precedent to support the common sense notion that marijuana can be successfully regulated provided we remove it from the grip of gangs and cartels and put it in the control of the regulatory system, with all of its fixable imperfections.

While alcohol is seductive and has great potential to negatively impact public order, driving, and personal safety, its prohibition made it even more dangerous. Gangs and cartels supplied contaminated drinks of unknown potency and purity, killing and blinding consumers

Yet, unregulated and based on a big business model as that repeal was, nobody questions the fact that it was significantly better than the prohibitionist status quo.

As with alcohol, marijuana becomes far more threatening, yet no less available, when it is prohibited and gangs and cartels control its quality and marketing. And while the early statistics are clearly favorable in states that have already legalized, prohibitionists will always find hairs to split in their ongoing effort to distract from the central, overwhelming fact that criminalizing any widely used mood enhancer is a futile, destructive approach to protecting public health and safety.

More telling, anti-legalizers completely ignore the impact on those in the cross hairs of enforcement--lower-income people of color and language, whose communities are criminalized and torn apart by archaic marijuana laws. Federal estimates say some 900,000 of our youth are risking their lives and freedom by selling illegal drugs. They are not selling alcohol. The claim that we don't imprison large numbers of people for simple possession is deeply misleading, as first-time offenders are typically put on probation with impossibly high behavioral standards, thus creating a predictable two-step path from possession to prison. And every soul we cage takes their family and part of their community along with them. And every dollar taken from low-income families to pay drug-related fines adds to their daily burden; a drug war burden invisible to the more privileged.

Moreover, the hysteria of our approach makes it virtually impossible to communicate the real perils and pitfalls of marijuana use to the vulnerable young, who only hear, and predictably tune out, threats and bombast.

And how tempting the forbidden fruit that even their parents are not allowed to touch!

Question 4 has robust safeguards, reasonable regulations, and room for inevitable refinement. Alterations concerning the tax rate, the oversight committee, siting equity, edibles, promotional limitations, and impaired driving will of necessity be confronted once the initiative passes. Even today, we refine our regulations on alcohol and cigarettes with tangible success. Indeed, neither crops nor community-police relations were poisoned as we tamed Big Tobacco and saw youthful smoking rates plummet. Regulations and education work; punishment backfires. This holds true whether the drug use is a personal choice or a personal problem.

The much ballyhooed heightened potency of today's marijuana, is irrelevant. We did not decide to keep hard drinks illegal when we re-legalized beer and wine. A drug's potency is certainly a factor in how it is regulated, but it cannot be regulated until it is legalized.

Cost is a factor in youthful usage, and, as with cigarettes, taxes can be adjusted to find the sweet spot that will discourage use and undercut the underground market. Availability is also a factor, but it will not be meaningfully changed through this initiative. Some 40 percent of Americans have used marijuana despite over 600,000 arrests each year. It remains available.

I worked with incarcerated populations for over 20 years, as a child care worker in a maximum security Department of Youth Services facility and with the Hampden County Sheriff's Department. Nothing good came out of our punitive drug laws, which thwarted every effort we made at genuine rehabilitation.

The ongoing prohibition of marijuana is an abdication of our responsibility to effectively regulate both the drug and its consequences. It is an abdication of our responsibility to our children.

That is why I support Question 4.

Officer Patrick Heintz (Ret.) spent more than 20 years as a corrections officer and substance abuse counselor. He is now a speaker for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), a group of criminal justice professionals working to legalize marijuana.