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Pot now legal statewide, but scoring some isn't

Marijuana is legal in Massachusetts as of Thursday, but dispensaries won't open until 2018.

A customer at a marijuana dispensary in Canada checks out the selection.

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The law of the land says recreational use of marijuana is now legal in Massachusetts, but for those looking to toke up, there’s a catch.

Until regulated retail shops open next year, there’s no legal market to buy or sell marijuana, leaving smokers a bit hazy on how to get it.

“People are going to continue to buy marijuana tomorrow from the same place they’ve been buying for the last 100 years: the black market,” Erik Altieri, executive director of the Washington-based pro-legalization group NORML, said Wednesday.

That means adults over 21 who — as of Thursday — can legally possess up to 10 ounces of marijuana in their homes, up to one ounce in public, and grow up to six plants, will still have to rely on their neighborhood drug dealer to supply their weed.


The law does allow for “gifting” of up to an ounce of marijuana. Other than that, Altieri said the only way to avoid breaking the law would be to grow it yourself.

This seemingly legal gray area was not lost on the architects of state ballot Question 4, which was formally certified Wednesday by the Governor’s Council.

“We wanted to end prohibition as soon as we could, but can’t just magically create a retail environment,” Jim Borghesani, communications director for the Campaign to Tax + Regulate Marijuana, which lead the “Yes on 4” charge.

The 18-month gap between legalizing possession and opening the regulated retail sales market is actually typical — all eight states plus Washington D.C. that have voted to legalize followed the same path, Altieri said. Marijuana advocates described the gap as a sort of a trade-off to encourage states to fast-track legalization, but give them time to develop the means to regulate the legal market.

“It encourages state regulators and legislators to implement the retail outlets in a timely and effective manner in order to encourage anyone purchasing on the black market to move to the legal market,” he said.

Until then, selling marijuana in Massachusetts will remain a crime punishable by up to two years in jail and a fine of up to $5,000. The exception would be medical marijuana, which is regulated by the state.

“The passage of Question 4 makes no changes to the current law for the selling of class "D" substances. The BPD will continue to enforce the law as it pertains to the illegal sale of drugs in Boston,” Lt. Mike McCarthy said in a statement.

The mayor’s office sent a reminder to residents Wednesday that legalization comes with limits.

Smoking in public anywhere that tobacco is prohibited is still illegal — and yes, that includes you with the vaporizer pen. Those caught using in public will be hit with a $500 fine.

Furthermore, it is illegal to driver under the influence of marijuana and laws governing that will remain unchanged.

Low-level pot dealers have been a low priority on Massachusetts and federal watch lists, and a spokesman for the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office said this legal gray area is nothing new to the local law enforcement community, which has been dealing with it since Massachusetts decriminalized possession in 2008.

“In Boston and Suffolk County, our prosecutorial resources are directed at high-level violent and recidivist offenders, and that includes drug dealers,” he said. “Drug users are not really on the prosecution’s radar.”

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