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December 16, 2016

Marijuana advocates hand out free pot in front of State House

Andy Metzger/SHNS Keith Saunders held a jar of what he said was nearly an ounce of newly legalized marijuana outside the State House on Thursday.

A decade ago a Massachusetts State Police cruiser, lights on, pulling up onto the sidewalk at a cannabis celebration might have been cause for alarm among attendees.

On Thursday, the first day of marijuana legalization under a ballot law, the brief presence of a police car - which was turning around to head down Beacon Street - didn't cause a stir among activists showing off their green product for the news media outside the State House.

Scituate resident Keith Saunders, a member of the pro-marijuana-legalization NORML Board of Directors, held out a jar that he said contained just under an ounce of marijuana that was grown and gifted to him by a patient. Saunders told reporters he was giving people marijuana from his jar as they've asked for it.

The ballot law permits people 21 and over to carry up to an ounce of marijuana in public and gift up to an ounce. It allows individuals to grow up to six plants, limiting it to 12 per household, and possess up to 10 ounces at home. A regulatory regime for retail sale of the drug is not yet established, and unregulated sales remain illegal. But the legal flow of marijuana has begun.

For Saunders, holding what he said was about two months' supply on a Beacon Hill sidewalk felt natural.

"It means that we have common sense in our drug policies, because there's no reason that I couldn't stand here with a beer or with a pack of cigarettes or with a Coca Cola, or with prescription medicine I would be allowed to have," Saunders said. He said, "It's a change. It's some semblance of sanity and common sense. Prohibiting a plant has never made any sense to begin with."

Marijuana legalization was opposed by Gov. Charlie Baker, Attorney General Maura Healey, House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, among others who expressed concern about sanctioning the intoxicant. Opponents of legalization cited negative impacts associated with stoned driving, an influx of advertising steering people toward pot usage, a rise in health problems and the possibility that teen marijuana usage will increase.

Senate President Stan Rosenberg, who was among the 1.7 million voters who voted in favor of the ballot question, disclosed this week that he thinks lawmakers should consider raising the age when people can legally possess the substance from 21 to 25.

Dating back to 2008, when a statewide referendum decriminalized possession of up to an ounce of marijuana, pro-pot advocates have used the ballot to advance more permissive policies toward cannabis. Members of the Legislature have largely sat on the sidelines during the state's multiyear marijuana policy debate. Now, top lawmakers say they want to get involved in amending the voter law, which critics say was written by and for the marijuana industry.

Until Maine's ballot law takes effect, Massachusetts is the only state on the East Coast with legalized marijuana. Washington D.C. voters passed a measure to legalize possession, cultivation and gifting among adults. Legalization laws have passed across the entire West Coast, and in Alaska and Nevada.

"What we did on a state-by-state basis is really bring it to the people, bring it to the grassroots," Saunders said. "Massachusetts very importantly has the six-plant cultivation per adult, which allows for the creation of a supply that doesn't depend upon a legalized market. People will be able to cultivate and share what they cultivate."

Saunders said he put six marijuana seeds in soil Wednesday night.

While gearing up a legalized market regulated by the Cannabis Control Commission will take some time, the roughly two-dozen people celebrating legalization in the cold on the State House steps Thursday took advantage of legalized gifting.

"We're able to hand out cannabis to each other. We're able to hand out concentrates and seeds to one another and we're doing it peacefully," said Ellen Brown, of Marstons Mills on Cape Cod. She said, "We're asking 'Are you 21?' We're not giving out to children. It's not crazy or willy-nilly."

Brown is an educator at the Northeast Institute of Cannabis.

Cupped in her hand and emitting a potent smell, Brown held what she said was about one eighth of an ounce of "blue dream" marijuana, that she estimated was worth about $50 and said had been given to her.

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