Massachusetts legislators have filed new bills this session centered on decriminalizing drug posession and use. GBH Morning Edition host Joe Mathieu spoke with Northeastern University law professor and GBH News legal analyst Daniel Medwed about the proposed measures, how they would work, and how they line up with how other states are approaching decriminalization. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.
Joe Mathieu: One bill in particular is making news, Daniel — one that would decriminalize all drugs. That's quite a headline; it made national news this week. How would it work?
Daniel Medwed: Well, it's a rather straightforward decriminalization bill that was introduced in the House by Representatives Liz Miranda and Mike Connolly with a virtually identical bill in the Senate by Julian Cyr. People in the Commonwealth nowadays, of course, are subject to criminal penalties if they're caught possessing a controlled substance. If passed, this bill would completely eradicate that approach and replace it with a civil fine system. You'd be socked with a civil fine of $50, and even then it could be voided if you simply agree to what's called needs testing, an evaluation of your health or other service needs. Now, the law is entitled "An Act [Relative to] Harm Reduction and Racial Justice," which I think really encapsulates the twin objectives of the bill. First, that the war on drugs has inflicted a lot of collateral damage on our collective well-being — this emphasis on criminal punishment, not public health. And second, that communities of color have really disproportionately borne the brunt of that collateral damage and that they deserve some redress.
Mathieu: OK, so you've really identified a trend there and we're seeing similar bills pop up in some other states, Daniel. How do they compare to ours?
Medwed: Well, the trendsetter is really Oregon. It became the first in the nation last November when it voted to decriminalize all drug possession and replace the system with one of fines and treatment, not unlike the system proposed in Massachusetts. What was different about Oregon, though, is that it came to pass through a ballot initiative, not the regular legislative process, which has a couple of advantages. For one thing, it provides political cover to legislators. Second, it provides a window into the extent of public support for the measure. More than 58 percent of Oregonians voted in favor of it. It just took effect on February 1st, so we don't know how it's going to play out, but obviously people are paying close attention. In terms of similar bills this term, a number of states are considering decriminalization bills. Vermont in particular is rumored to be on the cusp of introducing one any day now.
Mathieu: And we should note that legalizing marijuana here in Mass. came through a ballot initiative, right? Not legislation.
Medwed: That's right. Yeah.
Mathieu: There's another that would take us from decriminalization to the legalization of certain psychedelic drugs. Are we going to be in a world where people are buying some different mushrooms at the grocery store here or what?
Medwed: Quite possibly, Joe. So that one was also filed by Mike Connolly in the House. It would establish a 21-person task force to study various things through June 2022 and issue some reports. So first, the task force would take up the issue you just alluded to. It would study plant and fungi-based psychedelics and consider proposing recommendations to legalize the possession of them. I really should emphasize the limited scope here — just natural psychedelics, not things like heroin or cocaine or so. Second, that task force would also look into whether people could be pardoned or have their convictions expunged, if they were saddled with criminal convictions due to drug offenses.
Mathieu: I know it's local, so it's apples and oranges a bit, but we've seen Somerville and Cambridge decriminalizing psychedelics already this year. This is obviously controversial, Daniel, but has any state actually done this on the state level yet or are considering doing it?
Medwed: I'm not aware of a state that's gone so far as to actually legalize it yet, but it's inevitable. It's going to happen because so many states are considering it at the moment. In fact, the day before Representatives Miranda and Connolly submitted their own a bill, a state senator in California introduced a similar bill that would legalize the possession and social sharing of psychedelic drugs, as well as a few other controlled substances. Even lawmakers in conservative states like Texas are considering this issue. I read about one bill in Iowa where a Republican lawmaker introduced a bill that would remove psychedelic mushrooms from the list of controlled substances. It's really a growing movement, one could say a 'mushrooming' movement across the country.