Should marijuana use be legal in Massachusetts?
That polarizing question will be posed on the November ballot in Salem, Marblehead and Swampscott. Voters in about two dozen other communities will weigh in on similar proposals to legalize and tax marijuana.
Even if it passes, however, don't expect pot laws in those towns and cities to change.
"This will do nothing," admitted attorney Steven Epstein, the founder of the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition. "This is non-binding. It is an opinion poll. ... That's all it is."
Epstein hopes voter approval will help lay the foundation for a statewide ballot question in a few years and convince out-of-state donors that Massachusetts is ready for legalization.
The ballot question specifically asks voters their opinion of "legislation that would allow the state to regulate the taxation, cultivation, and sale of marijuana to adults."
Citing figures from a California analysis, Epstein estimated the legalization of marijuana would generate $100 million in additional revenue for Massachusetts.
"That's not including the hemp industry," said Epstein.
In an informal survey of about a dozen residents around Salem on Sunday, about three-quarters of the people questioned were in favor of legalization.
"Why not?" said Tony Dominguez, 32 of Salem. "Alcohol and cigarettes are legal and how many people die from those everyday?
"The only reason (marijuana) isn't legal already is the government wants to make sure they get their money from taxes. They don't care about our health," he continued.
Tracy Ware, a biochemistry professor at Salem State College, said she's in favor of legalizing the drug, citing benefits to the economy, law enforcement and to society.
"It's a big waste of law enforcement; I'd much rather they concentrate on (the opiate painkiller) Oxycontin in the high schools. That has had a much more devastating effects from what I've seen in my students," she said. "Students who smoke too much weed have less motivation, but I don't think they smoke less because it's illegal.
"I certainly don't recommend smoking marijuana," she added.
"I'm guessing people are going to smoke it anyway and if you came in and regulated sales and the system and the city could make some money, I wouldn't object," said Iain Murray, 50, of Salem.
What about worries of increased drug use — many say marijuana is a gateway drug that leads users to try harder narcotics — increased crime, or increased use among young people?
"It hasn't happened in other states that have (legalized it for medical reasons) so far," Ware said. "There is plenty of research that demonstrates, frankly, that those assertions are unsupported."
A few of those polled, however, said they wouldn't support legalizing the drug.
In California "there has been abuse, because doctors are handing it out like toilet paper," said Ken Sawicki of Salem, a former candidate for Salem City Council. "There's a long history and (legalization) would undermine all of the efforts we've made until now" to fight drug abuse.
Bonnie Larocque, a 44-year old mother from Salem, said there's no way she would support legalizing pot.
"Not even a little bit; not even a joint, not even a roach. If I was a cop and I found someone with it, I would arrest their ass," she said, admitting that she used to smoke the drug, but gave it up years ago after her children were born. "People smoke pot and do stupid things."
Supporters of legalization filed a bill in the last legislative session to allow adults over 21 to grow their own cannabis for personal use and to give it to others over 21. It would have also established license fees and excise taxes on cannabis sold at retail as well as created a regulatory Cannabis Control Authority.
Legislators ended the legislative session on July 31 without passing the bill.
Massachusetts residents are already smoking marijuana in high numbers, said Epstein. He equated Bay Staters' disregard for the marijuana laws to East Germans' flouting Soviet-imposed restrictions.
"They're just disobeying," said Epstein, of the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition. "There's no consensus that marijuana should be prohibited."
State Rep. John Keenan (D-Salem) said that while he supports the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, he's against legalization, even if it does generate additional revenue for a cash-strapped state.
"Lots of times it's considered an initial step to drug use," said Keenan. "Certainly there are some that can use it in a controlled way, but I don't think it's a wise approach to use at this time."
Michael Collins, age unknown, Salem
"My initial feeling is marijuana is a narcotic and we should treat it as such. ... Your ambitions break down, your thought processes break down and you don't think clearly and God forbid (you get behind the wheel) and hurt someone.
"If you're looking at taxes, fiscally speaking it can help out a lot. If we really restricted it and watch it carefully, with the money generated it could have a positive effect."
Dave Gallo, 35, Salem
"I'm all for it. From a scientific geek standpoint, alcohol compared to marijuana has many far worse effects. ...
"If we make money off of it, we won't have to raise money in other sectors. People will do it whether it's legal or not, and if my taxes and your taxes go down as a result and it's done in a reasonable way, why not?"
Ron Smith, 41, Lynn
Marijuana "should have legalized 20 or more years ago, because you can make money by taxing it.
"It's causing more issues now and wasting money now because we're spending so much money to fight it."
Iain Murray, 50, Salem
"The reason it's a gateway drug is not because people need something stronger, it's because the person they're buying it from don't just sell marijuana, they sell other things too because (marijuana) is already illegal so why not? In terms of raising money (from taxes) why not?"
Ken Sawicki, age unknown, of Salem,
"I'm against legalization. There's a long history and (legalization) would undermine all of the efforts we've made until now (to fight drug abuse). I won't be opposed to legalizing marijuana for medical reasons. I can't see denying anyone their last dying wish, as long as it's strictly enforced."
Bonnie Larocque, 44, Salem
"I don't support legalization, not even a little bit; not even a joint, not even a roach. If I was a cop and I found someone with it, I would arrest their ass. ... People smoke pot and do stupid things."