Upstairs at the Lir bar in the Hub’s Back Bay neighborhood Tuesday night at around 10 pm, panic began setting in among a true blue crowd of reporters and wonks. What had started as a celebratory end-of-election party thrown by the Massachusetts public policy think tank MassINC had turned into the unthinkable - a pants-shitting fear fest with images of a soon-to-be-declared President-elect Donald Trump on the surrounding television screens. Many ordered shots. Some just closed their eyes and braced for the horror.

But three floors down at the very same establishment, in the hot and crowded basement bar, a very different scene was unfolding. In fact it had been kicking for hours, with long lines to get in throughout the evening. 

As cannabis advocates from across Massachusetts gathered for the day’s largest and official Yes on Question 4 party, all of the incoming news of primary importance to them was positive, hopeful. As foreshadowed by voters pulling for decriminalization in 2008 and medical marijuana in 2012, the people of the Commonwealth were about to end prohibition once and for all.

“I came into the event confident,” said Shanel Lindsay, an attorney and cannabis advocate who was closely aligned with the campaign to tax and regulate marijuana. “We were polling at around 50-50, and that was just one percent polling. I wanted to see [cities like] Boston, Springfield, and Worcester, and now that we see those coming in we are just getting ahead and ahead and ahead.”

State voters saw through campaign opponents

As it became more apparent that the measure was to pass, activists were happy to discuss the failure of the harsh campaign against them.

“I saw two focuses of the [“No”] campaign at the end,” Lindsay said. “One was the medical professionals who came on board. C’mon, you have the head of the Massachusetts Medical Society, a clear prohibitionist fanatic who claimed that the Boston Marathon bombings were based on weed withdrawal, and guys like [Massachusetts] House Speaker Bob DeLeo comparing heroin and cannabis.

I just had a friend who passed away from an overdose. I think people in Massachusetts understand and know what cannabis is, and I think the campaign got into a frenzy at the end with all of the hyperbole and misinformation.”

Lindsay said people now know the opiate isn't made worse by cannabis. In fact, medical marijuana can be an effective treatment.

“People like me, we’ve had more friends than we can count on one hand die and be taken from us from the opiate epidemic. We know what’s causing that - it’s not weed, it’s prescription pills," said Lindsay.

"The results show that many people understand that. When we in five years have curbed this epidemic using cannabis as a harm-reduction technique and to treat the underlying pain, I think we’re going to look back and this is going to be one of the biggest embarrassments to officials in this state and in the medical community. We all know where the opposition’s money was coming from - it was coming from the alcohol industry, it was coming from the pharmaceutical industry.

Legal in December, regulations by 2018

Though DeLeo and other beer, wine, and spirit-backed lawmaker opponents of Question 4 preeminently pledged to edit the language passed by voters, as of now marijuana will become legal to use on December 15, with cannabis operations able to open as early as 2018.

Despite the happiness filling the basement at Lir, few minced words about the road ahead, acknowledging the legislature’s history of subverting the will of voters. After spending years pushing the Massachusetts Department of Public Health to implement the prescribed medical system, advocates were gearing up for battle before retiring their party hats.

“We need the positive energy,” said Rhodes Pierre of Access Cannabis Consulting and the Cannabis Cultural Association. “The fight has just begun. It’s legal now, but we have to make sure we have safe and legal access. We still have to make sure that the state goes through and administers it the way it’s supposed to. They can drag their feet, just like Congress dragging their feet not voting on a Supreme Court nominee.”

While legalizers in Mass endured some schisms in the past year - for one, the effort started out on two fronts, with another failed ballot question that would have regulated cannabis more like food than alcohol, as the prevailing measure does - there didn’t seem to be any bad blood on Election Night.

Former backers of the scrapped initiative mingled and celebrated along with the rest, many of them having volunteered for the “Yes” campaign after minor grumblings and protest.

At the same time, tensions dissipated between hardline legalization voices and patient advocates, many of whom defended the state’s medical apparatus - which they helped implement - even as Yes on 4 forces attacked it.

“We might become two groups of people implementing medical marijuana and adult use, but I feel like now the community is 100 percent full-in, so they don’t feel that stigma,” said Nichole Snow of the Massachusetts Patient Advocacy Alliance. “That relief will show. Medical has been taken on by the patients, and stigma has been reduced on that end, but now that the stigma has been reduced on the adult use end they can come out and help us implement [both] programs. While they’re two different statutes I believe we can implement them as a whole [community]…This is the beginning of a lot of work ahead of us for implementation of adult use.”

“The legislators are just politicians,” Pierre added. “Real change never comes from the top-down. It comes from the bottom-up. If it doesn’t, it’s being forced upon the people.”

Chris Farone is a journalist in Boston. This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.

Banner photo by Chris Farone.