Despite Legalization, No Spike in Marijuana Related Crimes in Western Mass. Communities

Jun 15, 2017

The Massachusetts House has delayed a vote scheduled for Thursday on changes to the state’s marijuana law. There were problems with the bill's language and plenty of criticism of some of the proposed changes to what voters okayed last year.

The ballot question law has not been fully implemented, but possession of small amounts of pot has been legal for adults since mid-December. Police across Western Massachusetts tell us that -- so far -- little has changed.

Dire warnings to voters

In the days leading up to last November's election, opponents of Question 4 stated their case via the airwaves, using television commercials to urge voters to cast their ballot against the question.

"Higher potency, dangerous drivers," the ad said. "It's the reason health professionals are urging you to vote no on 4."

And Governor Charlie Baker relayed what he said he heard from some elected officials in Colorado.

"'If you don't have to go down this road at this point in time, it's probably a good idea that you don't, and that's pretty much where I'm at," Baker said before the election.

But Massachusetts voters chose to go down that road, legalizing pot by a 200,000 vote margin. And since the law took effect on December 15, fears held by the opponents appear so far to be unfounded.

No increase in DUI marijuana charges

For example, driving under the influence of marijuana. According to police in Springfield, Chicopee and Holyoke, things have remained about the same in the months since legalization as opposed to before.

The state police report the number of people charged with operating a vehicle under the influence of marijuana actually dropped by about 20 percent in the two months after the law hit the books, compared to the two months prior.

A Pittsfield, Mass., police cruiser.
Credit Conor Berry / The Republican

In Pittsfield, the trend has been similar. Police Chief Michael Wynn said he has one theory why.

"Without a definitive roadside test, we're probably not making those stops," Wynn said. "There's not enough evidence we can gather just on a reasonable suspicion stop."

More burglaries for pot, no public consumption tickets

Wynn said there has been a rise in one type of crime in Pittsfield since legalization went into effect: "There's been a marked increase in home invasions targeting legally-grown marijuana," Wynn said. "We're tracking that trend fairly closely and it appears to be holding across a several month period."

The law made possession of up to an ounce of marijuana legal for anyone 21 and older, but it can’t be smoked in public. Police can fine people for that,  although those we talked to say their departments haven’t issued any of those tickets.

Supporters unsurprised

Supporters of legalization say none of this surprises them. Jim Borghesani is the spokesperson for the Yes on 4 campaign, which led the effort to get the ballot question passed.

"Despite alarmist fears that intoxicated driving via marijuana would increase and road safety would decrease, in no other legal state has that occurred and we haven't seen it, so far, in Massachusetts," he said.

Travel writer Rick Steves donated to the campaign to legalize marijuana in Massachusetts, and came to the state to campaign for the ballot question.
Credit Rick Steves' Facebook page / via MassLive

Of course, legal pot is still in its infancy in Massachusetts. Retail stores selling marijuana won’t open until summer of 2018 at the earliest.

So law enforcement officials are taking a wait-and-see approach before measuring the impacts. Borghesani, though, said there isn't much left to wait for.

"It's already here," Borghesani said. "It's been here for decades. All we're doing, again, is transferring the market from an illegal market to a legal market, where people actually check IDs and pay taxes."

Massachusetts' neighbors to the north and south are watching what happens here, as they consider the future of marijuana.

Vermont Governor Phil Scott recently vetoed a legalization bill, but signaled he might be willing to compromise with lawmakers. And some Democrats in Connecticut floated the idea of legal pot there as a way to fill in a large budget deficit.