On the morning on July 17, 2015 law enforcement agents stormed the Reading, Mass. home of Bill Downing. Armed with machine guns and dressed in flak jackets, the inter-agency force, comprised of Boston Police, local police, the DEA, and the North Eastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council SWAT team conducted a sweep of the 57-year-old long-time marijuana activist’s home, rousing his wife and two sons out of bed at gunpoint.
“They held my family under armed guard, rummaged through my house, took all my family savings from a fire proof safe in a basement,” Downing said in an interview. “They found very little. They were, of course, looking for a large quantity of marijuana or other drugs and guns.”
At the same time, about 20 miles away in the Allston neighborhood of Boston, authorities were conducting a raid of his store, CBD Please, where they seized hundreds of grams of non-psychoactive cannabis products like hemp oils. In January of this year, Downing was charged with eight counts, including possession with intent to distribute a Class D drug, marijuana.
“They even took the money in my wallet,” he said.
Just this last week, Downing, the treasurer of the Mass Cannabis Reform Coalition, accepted a plea in which he would admit to being responsible to 7 counts of distribution, despite the fact that the Massachusetts Department of Health has come out and stated explicitly that CBD, the hemp oil Downing was selling is, in fact, legal.
“Yet they wanted to keep my money and everything. They held my money and said if i didn’t take a plea they were going to take it,” he said. “I was forced to admit responsibility, so they reduced my charge to civilian citation so there’s no record.”
In the meantime, his store has resumed business, but the seizure of much of his inventory, and the negative attention from being raided has driven much of his customer base away. He’s still yet to receive the money taken from his home, and hasn’t heard from the DEA when that will be. He’s still on the hook for at least $10,000 in legal fees, he says.
All of this come as Massachusetts gets set to vote on a ballot initiative that would further relax the state’s already relatively permissive marijuana laws. In 2008, the state decriminalized the possession of small amounts of the drug—under an ounce—and in 2012 a medical marijuana law was passed, leading to the opening of a handful of stores around the state, despite much foot-dragging by government officials still opposed to the law.
Likewise this year, voters in California, Florida, Nevada, Maine, Arizona, Massachusetts, Arkansas, Montana, and North Dakota will weigh in on legalization and medical marijuana options on the ballot.
To the consternation of marijuana and civil liberties activists, Downing hasn’t been the only one to come across a still selectively draconian law enforcement approach to marijuana. In September of this year a helicopter landed in the garden of 81-year-old Amherst woman Margaret Holcomb, as part of a series of such raids around the area. Massachusetts National Guardsmen and state police promptly seized her single marijuana plant she had been cultivating to help her arthritis and glaucoma.
Earlier this summer, a similar raid was conducted on the home of an 81 year old Martha’s Vineyard cancer survivor, Paul Jackson, who cultivated a number of plants for use in medicinal tea. Jackson had used the tea to help his wife, now deceased, deal with the pain of pancreatic cancer.
“They find a couple dozen plants and they bust a couple of dozens elderly folks, and you know what it costs to run a helicopter?” Downing asks. “We’re talking tens of thousands of dollars an hour. Is that a good use of our resources to bust some old folks for plants?”
So why are authorities in Massachusetts seemingly ramping up enforcement of marijuana control when it seems likely, according to recent polls, that it’s about to become legal? Downing has a theory.
“It was the police acting as the political enforcement arm of the [Boston mayor Martin] Walsh administration,” he says.
Walsh, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, and Attorney General Maura Healey are among those opposed to Question 4, a ballot measure that would legalize and regulate the use of marijuana. Walsh, a recovering alcoholic, has spoken about marijuana’s potential as a gateway drug. Baker has compared the use of marijuana to the opioid crisis currently ravaging New England states, despite the fact it appears fewer people take opioids in states with medical marijuana laws, as a recent study has shown. Researchers in Colorado, where recreational marijuana is legal, have said they haven’t seen any such correlation, or other health concerns, since it was passed.
Joining in the fight against legalization in Massachusetts are the Archdiocese of Boston, who donated $850,000 to oppose the measure, and Las Vegas billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who donated $1,000,000. The Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association and other law enforcement groups have come out against the ballot, saying, among other things, it will lead to more impaired driving.
Civil liberty groups, like the ACLU of Massachusetts, dismiss the opposition as Reefer Madness-style hyperbole, and suggest that police may be reluctant to see the legalization of marijuana because—despite the fact that it has been decriminalized in the state—it’s still so often used as cause for suspicion in harassing or stopping citizens, particularly people of color.
One such woman, Shanel Lindsay, decided to speak out and share her story of being arrested for possessing a minuscule amount of marijuana in 2010, after a recent ACLU report that found people of color were being stopped for marijuana related incidents. During a right-on-red traffic infraction, the police officer noticed a small amount of marijuana in her car. She was handcuffed, arrested, and her car was impounded. Lindsay, a lawyer, was lucky that she had a working knowledge of the law.
“Everything in my life flashed before me,” she said. “I was about to lose my career, my child, my status. The only thing that saved me was being able to come up with the best legal argument that I could muster while sitting there with the cuffs digging into my arms on a cold metal slab. And that argument was ‘You are violating my civil rights.’” She convinced the police to weigh the marijuana, which amounted to a half-ounce, well under the amount that is subject to a civil fine.
Her story of being arrested for possession of an amount of marijuana that isn’t even a criminal offense isn’t uncommon, said Whitey Taylor Political Director of the MA ACLU, who also worked on the marijuana decriminalization campaign in 2008.
They looked at the last 15 months of data reported by police in Boston—reporting records in Massachusetts at large are notoriously hard to track down, and government agencies often drag their heels or draw things out when asked for such internal numbers—and found that every day 13 people in Boston either have an encounter with, or are arrested by police for Class D-related substances. Marijuana is by far the most common drug listed under that category.
“We do have data that shows people are being arrested, or whatever term you want to use, harassed, stopped and frisked, and marijuana is being listed in this data as the source,” she said.
“The racial dynamics are staggering about the bias about who is policed for marijuana and who isn’t. When you have opponents of Question 4 saying nobody gets arrested for marijuana. Sure, maybe white people with power, access and money—you're right. They can comfortably smoke marijuana. If you’re poor or a person of color, not only is the policing biased, the marijuana policing is still a hook that’s used to bring people into the criminal justice system, whether it’s the charge itself or the hook used as another charge.”
A black person is 3.3 times more likely to be arrested than a white person in Massachusetts, the state’s ACLU data has found. Use among black and white people is the same, and although they’re only 8 percent of the population of the state, black people account for 24% of the marijuana possession arrests.
“Without question, we have folks that have been arrested on stuff that wasn’t legal for them to be arrested under decriminalization, or under medical marijuana law,” said Taylor.
That’s largely because possession with intent is a judgment call for police in the state. Perhaps to the surprise of few, that judgment is often hastily made when it comes to poor people or people of color in certain neighborhoods, according to the study.
There’s hope that this will change if Question 4 is passed, but it’s not a sure thing.
“It’s not as clear cut as we can say once Question 4 passes, everything will get better,” said Taylor. “We don’t want to say racial bias in policing will end. But low-level, hanging charge of marijuana—that won’t be a way for law enforcement to basically put handcuffs on someone while they’re fishing around for something else.”
That’s a trend that’s coming sooner or later around the country, Downing believes.
“It’s just like the repeal of alcohol prohibition. If you know your history about prohibition, it was a federal prohibition. And some states didn’t give a damn about federal prohibition,” said Downing.
“I’m old enough to remember the end of the Vietnam War,” Downing said. “I remember there was a big story at the time about the guy who was the last guy to get killed in Vietnam after they got out. That’s kind of how I feel, although I’m not quite dead.”