Cardinal, Governor, Mayor make final appeal to reject marijuana question

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DORCHESTER — Faith leaders teamed with Gov. Charlie Baker and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh on Monday to make a final appeal to voters to reject legal marijuana, painting the ballot campaign as one about commercialization more than legalization and portraying pot as a “gateway drug” to future substance abuse.

Baker called the ballot proposal a “mess” requiring the “ultimate leap of faith” that policy leaders will be able to fix the flaws in the question after giving the industry a head start. And Walsh warned that 48 pot shops would open in Boston neighborhoods within the first year under the proposed law, with little ability for the city to control store locations.

“The ballot question is 6,000 words long and it was written by the corporate recreational marijuana industry for the corporate recreational marijuana industry,” Baker said.

About 20 of the 147 faith leaders from around Boston opposed to Question 4 gathered at the Deliverance Temple Worship Center in Dorchester to make the case against legalization, which proponents have pitched as a safer alternative to the black market for drugs. The ballot question would legalize the adult use of marijuana and allow the state to regulate its sale.

Sen. Viriato deMacedo and Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O’Keefe also attended the event.

Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the Catholic archbishop of Boston, said the National Institutes of Health agrees with faith leaders like himself that marijuana can be a “gateway” to abuse of other drugs and would be a poor response to the opioid epidemic around the state.

“I can only imagine parents around the country thinking twice before they would want to send their sons and daughters to a school in a city that becomes the mecca on the East Coast for marijuana,” O’Malley said.

Jim Borghesani, a spokesman for the “Yes of 4” campaign, said it was “distressing” that faith leaders would buy into “junk science and reefer-madness rhetoric.”

“Unfortunately, these faith leaders have it backward,” Borghesani said. “The more dangerous system is the one that exists today, where criminals control the market, consumers are forced into dangerous transactions, and people of color are 3.3 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana offenses than whites.”

Both Baker and Walsh said the evidence from Colorado suggests legalization would do nothing to eliminate the black market for marijuana, which continues to be sold in that state tax free.

In fact, leaders continuously pointed to the experience of Colorado as a cautionary tale, including the glut of retail pot shops that opened in Denver.

Rev. Arlene Hall, pastor of the worship center that hosted the event and the president of the Black Ministerial Alliance of Greater Boston, said communities of color will “suffer the worst” of the impact from legalization.

“We will feel the impact more than any other communities, because we always do and as always we have fewer resources to combat this epidemic and the implications if it should pass,” said Hall, a mother of five children.

Comparing how wealthier communities will respond to neighborhoods like Dorchester, Baker said, “I guarantee people will find legal representation and other means to prevent these dispensaries from opening in their communities.”

Walsh also said that Massachusetts has already answered two of the most powerful concerns being raised by legal pot activists by voting to decriminalize possession of up to an ounce of pot and making medical marijuana legal.

“People need to realize if you vote yes on this question what you’re doing is bringing pot shops to your community Your not legalizing marijuana,” Walsh said.

WATCH: Cardinal, Gov, Mayor on Question 4

The mayor’s argument followed leaders of the Massachusetts Medical Society, Hospital Association, Organization of Nurse Leaders of MA/RI/NH/CT and the American Nurses Association Massachusetts taking issue this week with new mailers and a video ad from the Yes on 4 campaign depicting a nurse in favor of marijuana as a pain relief substitute for opioids.

“Both pieces incorrectly imply that this ballot question is about medical marijuana, which is already legal in Massachusetts, and also inappropriately indicate the question has broad healthcare community support,” they wrote in a joint statement.

The push from the “No on 4” campaign a week before voters will cast the final ballots comes as recent polling showing legalization proponents with an edge in Massachusetts. The last Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll conducted Oct. 24 through Oct. 26 found 49 percent support for Question 4 with 42 percent opposed and 8 percent undecided.

While some legislative leaders have already begun to contemplate how lawmakers could improve the ballot question if it passes, neither Baker nor Walsh nor O’Malley were ready to concede defeat.

“There’s been a lot of ballot questions that I’ve opposed and supported over the years and on a personal matter, understanding the effects on so many people in a negative way, I don’t think there’s ever been a ballot question that I’ve been more opposed to than the ballot question of Question 4,” Walsh said. “and the reason for it? I’ve had to make too many phone calls like I made today to parents to say I’m sorry about your loss, your son or your daughter’s pain and suffering is over now because they’re no longer with us.”

Rev. Janice Ford, the rector at the Episcopal Church of Reconciliation which worked to set up a six-bed sober home, said many of the patients have stories of addiction that started with the use of marijuana at a young age as a form of self-medication “to escape the chaos of their lives.”

Ford accepted that the ballot question is not written to target youth, but said, “It is foolish, unrealistic and irresponsible to believe that marijuana kept in any form in the home won’t become an irresistible temptation for them.”

During an appearance on Boston Herald Radio Tuesday, state Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders expressed concern about fully legalizing marijuana while the state is grappling with opioid overdose deaths and addiction.

Sudders also said she was concerned about the potency of marijuana products and edible products that could be accidentally ingested by children.

“I worry about brain development for children,” Sudders said.

Dr. Nabil Khudairy, executive director of the Islamic Council of New England, quoted extensively from the Quran about the dangers of drugs, and said he worries about how legalization will impact the choices about substance use that his son faces in his first year at college.

“We literally and figuratively don’t want to see our kids go to pot,” he said.

— Written by Matt Murphy